MEPs vote for plastic bag target by 2018

On April 15-16 2014, the European Parliament debated and voted on reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags. The report by rapporteur Margrete Auken (Greens/EFA, DK) was adopted with 539 votes in favour and 51 against.

By Dods EU Political Intelligence

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16 Apr 2014

Please note that this does not constitute a formal record of the proceedings of the meeting. It is dependent on interpretation and acts as an unofficial summary of the debate.

The rapporteur, Margrete Auken (Greens/EFA, DK), opened the debate by saying that she felt that plastic bag waste was one of the worst environmental problems facing the EU. She said that 70% of marine pollution was a result of plastic waste, which also created problems for animal life and the food chain. She said that in the EU 100 billion plastic bags are used annually, an amount she called grotesque. She said that the proposal would allow the EU to act and tackle this problem. She said that Commission polling had revealed widespread public support for tackling plastic bag waste. She said that while the Commission’s proposal is strong, it could be strengthened - something which she did through her report to the committee. She hoped that the next Parliament would be able to continue her work. She noted that Ireland had shown that there could be a drastic reduction in consumption of plastic bags within a short amount of time, but that the political will had to be there. She said that there should be a target of reducing plastic bag use by 80% in five years, a goal she felt could be reached if there were a cost associated with plastic bag use. She said that while the objective would be binding, it would be for Member States to decide how it is implemented. She said the Directive was the first time that legislators had discussed prevention of bag use, something for which she claimed widespread public support.

Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment, said that the proposal would solve a serious problem, namely the over-consumption and littering of plastic bags. He reiterated MEP Auken’s point that plastic bags were especially prevalent as marine litter and said that this was especially damaging given that bags can remain present in the environment for 100 years or more. He said that in the North Sea, 94% of birds were found to have plastics in their digestive systems. Aside from the environmental damage, he said that plastic bags were a symbol of a disposable society which was squandering its resources. He noted that public opinion was behind reducing bag waste, but said that public behaviour needed a nudge in the right direction. He said this was a lesson which had been learnt from Ireland. He called on Member States to launch their own initiatives to tackle the problem. He said that the proposal under discussion had two main elements:

  1. It requires Member States to adopt measures to reduce lightweight bag consumption.
  2. It provides a range of tools, such as price controls or market bans, so tackle the issue. Which Member States are free to implement so long as they are in keeping with existing EU rules.

He endorsed the report overall, but said that some amendments were not necessary in order for the Directive to achieve its objectives. He said that a reduction target may be appealing, but the Commission had reached the conclusion that it would be difficult to design and implement at this stage. He also did not think that exceptions should be made for loose food, or beverages for immediate consumption. He thought that changes should still be made to reduce their use. He added that the Commission thought that all bags should be treated the same, regardless of the plastic type. He cautioned that biodegradable bags could be just as bad litter and only broke down if properly treated. He said that if not correctly handled biodegradable bags continued to cause environmental harm. He said that the overriding aim should be to reduce the use of bags and focus on reducing waste. He said that the Directive should not widen its focus to target plastic types, endocrine disrupters or oxidegradable plastics. He felt that these issues were important, but should be addressed in the broader context of the Green Paper of managing plastic waste. He concluded that the Commission and Parliament shared an objective, but may disagree on the way to reach it. He said that the Commission would ensure that compromise is reached with the Parliament.

Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė (EPP, LT) said that the proposals were important from an environmental, as well as a consumer perspective. She said that European citizens had doubts about the Parliament’s ability to act in certain areas. She said that this proposal showed that the Parliament was capable of acting in a way which would have a positive impact on citizens’ lives. She echoed the Commissioner and Auken’s earlier points about the environmental damage lightweight plastic bags can exact. She said that during committee discussions there was debate on the type of bags this proposal should apply to. She said that debate had centred on the treatment of bags with a density of 10 microns or less and those with a higher density, ultimately deciding that they should be treated the same. While supportive of proposals, she said that the EPP had doubts over the target to significantly reduce bag use over such a short timeframe. She said that the EPP supported making tools available to Member States to reduce bag use. However, she said that the EPP viewed banning bags out right as an overreaction. Instead the EPP felt that educational measures may be more inappropriate. She said that debate had been curtailed due to the upcoming elections and asked the Commission to present their views on biodegradable bags.

Judith Merkies (S&D, NL) said that given that Rwanda had banned plastic bags, it was odd that the EU should be hesitating to do likewise. She said that the report did not discuss a ban, instead favoured a reduction. She agreed that a reduction was needed, given that on average there were 200 bags per person used per year. She said that Ireland and Finland had managed to reduce that number to 4. She said that there was wide support for the measure, which would provide a range of health and social benefits. She said that the Commission could have been more ambitious in its proposals and could have used binding objectives. She said that Parliament was supportive of binding objectives over a 5 year period and had therefore included such measures in the report. She accused lobbyists as having thwarted the Parliament’s ambition in the name of safeguarding industry. She said that innovation in alternatives to plastic bags could have created jobs, so would have helped industry. She called for Parliament to vote in accordance with the wishes of public support.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (ALDE, NL) said that plastic bags represented a major societal problem and needed political direction to rectify it. He then reiterated the environmental and littering points made by his predecessors, using it as an opportunity to question who would not want to solve the problem. He said that in his view there was no overriding economic consideration which should prevent the problem of plastic bag litter being solved. He said that this was a view with which the European public agreed. He described a 3 month pilot in the Netherlands where 3 cities were able to eliminate 80% of their plastic bag litter. He went on to say that 90% of citizens asked supported the pilot and thought it should go further. He summarised by saying that there was a problem which was easily solved and which had the support of the electorate to do so. He finished by calling on Parliament to support measures to tackle the problem.

Bas Eickhout (Greens/EFA, NL) reiterated the seriousness of the plastic bag problem, adding that currently only 6.6% of bags were recyclable. Turning to the Commission’s impact assessment, he said that it had concluded that the best way to reduce bag use was by setting a clear reduction goal and adding a price tag to their use. He went on to say that the Commission’s proposal did not seem to act on its own impact assessment. Therefore he was pleased that the Parliament had added a reduction objective. He accused the right wing of the Parliament of blocking this objective, claiming that they simply wanted to prevent EU regulation. He said that Italy was being hampered by this action. According to him Italy wanted to ban the use of plastic bags, but was prevented from doing so by EU rules. He said that the right leaning groups in Parliament should not vote for an amendment which would make it impossible to ban plastic bags.

Julie Girling (ECR, UK) reiterated the negative impact that plastic bags were having and said that the disagreement in Parliament was not in tackling this issue, but the means to do so. She applauded Commissioner Potočnik’s proposal, stating that it would lead to the gradual elimination of plastic bags. She said that some MEPs appeared keen to compel some Member States to act. She said that she disagreed with this idea and preferred Member States being given the tools to act of their own initiative. She said that some Member States already had, which suggested others would follow suit if enabled. She pointed out that the Commission impact assessment only suggested mandatory bans with reluctance, and did so alongside a range of options to be considered. She also said that she did not support mandatory charging for bags, or a mandatory switch from plastic to biodegradable. She said that she disagreed with Eickhout’s characterisation of her group which she claimed agreed with the ends of the proposal - just not the means it puts forward.

Jacky Henin (GUE/NGL, FR) said that he agreed with the reduction of plastic bags, which he thought would curb the worse pollution of a consumerist society. He thought that the proposal should go further and promote the use of biodegradable or easily recyclable bags. He said that potato or maize starch bags could be promoted as an alternative. He felt that large profitable oil companies should pay a levy to subsidise new bags and not those he termed as poor consumers. He thought that working with agriculture and industry could help bring about change in bag use and recycling, which would have EU-wide benefits.

John Agnew (EFD, UK) said that while the proposals were well intentioned, the exemption of biodegradable bags from the legislation represented a serious loophole. He said this may lead to biodegradable bags being mixed with non-degradable bags in recycling facilities. He gave the example of a constituent who owned a business recycling non-degradable bags into new plastic products. He suggested that the mixing of both types of bags could lead to the end product degrading in a way in which it was not intended. He suggested this could lead to the company in question being put out of business, something which could be repeated across the EU. He then made the point that standard waste plastic is bought in bulk by the recycling industry, encouraging its reuse in the place of dumping. He went on to say that while biodegradable plastic was a step forward, its recycling and degradation was a significantly costly process. He also said that if the agricultural sector were to switch to biodegradable plastic, it would engender significant cost and require large amounts of space to be set aside for the degradation process. He suggested that the Commission’s promotion of biodegradable plastic could lead to it being acquired from dubious sources which did not follow EU norms. He concluded that the mass introduction of biodegradable plastic would mean that recycling plants would hold back from processing plastic, because they could not trust its origins or the fact that it would not contain biodegradable mass.

Christa Klass (EPP, DE) said that plastic was a packaging material which was essential for the preservation of many products. She recognised the fact that plastic waste could be damaging and that reducing its use may bring benefits. She called for greater education for consumers, so that they would know how to recycle bags. She warned against a patchwork approach in the EU, which she felt would confuse both consumers and industry. She said that some Member States had achieved significant reduction with a small levy - she cited the case of Ireland. She agreed with Commissioner Potočnik’s view that the term biodegradable was misleading given that the bags required special treatment to degrade. She said that making such bags more accessible to consumers may not be a good solution. She said that innovation was needed and warned against adopting legislation which may need repealing if biodegradable were proven to be a problem in the future.

Vittorio Prodi (S&D, IT) thanked Commissioner Potočnik for his support of the review of the Directive. He added that he hoped it would be possible to find an equitable balance between the market and environment. He said that he hoped for an economy which was competitive, whilst protecting health and the environment. He said that such an economy should guard against the use of primary resources though increased recycling. He said that he thought the EU should prohibit the discarding of damaging plastic litter.

Claude Turmes (Greens/EFA, LU) reiterated the environmental concerns and said that in 2004 Luxembourg introduced recyclable bags and charged a levy for other bags. He said that this led to a 10 fold reduction in the use of plastic bags. He said that he supported Auken’s stance that the proposals should go further and said that he supported an outright ban. He bemoaned the fact that he thought the plastics lobby had captured aspects of the debate, which would be witnessed through members voting against a ban.

Edvard Kozusnik (ECR, CZ) said that the Commission had presented a simple proposal which left it to the Member States to decide how to reduce plastic bag consumption. In his view, Parliament’s proposal and amendments had negated the principle of the original Commission proposal. He said that this would erode public trust in Parliament as Parliament moved to force a choice onto citizens. He said that citizens should be allowed to exercise a free choice and needed to be protected from a Parliament which was over-legislating issues that did not require it.

Francoise Grossetête (EPP, FR) reiterated environmental concerns and said that changes were needed in people’s behaviour so that bag consumption could be reduced. However she erred away from driving change through legislation. She called for gathering further data on the use of biodegradable bags and further bag technology research. She said that research into non-food crops being made into bags was a wise option, saying that citizens were unlikely to stop using bags - so they should be made from more environmentally friendly materials. She said that she did not object to light packaging being used for food hygiene purposes. She added that any plastic used should be reduced and an emphasis placed on recycling or re-use. In concluding she said that a lot could be done on the research front, but it would require industry support.

Asa Westlund (S&D, SE) recounted the story of her son picking up waste and finding a wide range of discarded products. She said that this showed that EU citizens needed to take collective responsibility for their littering. She reiterated the argument that this waste could in time find its way into the food chain. As a result of these observations she said she felt it right that there should be charge for bag use and move towards their reduced use. She said that she nonetheless had some reservations with the proposal. She said that in Sweden many people reused plastic bags as bin liners, something which the new regulations may prevent - leading to heavier bags being used instead. She said that this was the kind of reservation she had, and added that she hoped the final proposal would not lead to this kind of situation.

Satu Hassi (Greens/EFA, FI) supported the rapporteur’s call for binding targets to reduce litter. She revisited the environmental damage bags can cause in the maritime environment. She said that there should be a move towards fully biodegradable bags which would have the added benefit of lowering CO2 levels.

Elisabetta Gardini (EPP, IT) she said that as Italy had originally called for the Commission’s proposal they were supportive of it. She said that Italy was considering legislation banning single use bags and were promoting biodegradable and compostable bags. She berated MEPs who were questioning the environmental credentials of biodegradable bags, saying that those which were compliant with regulation EN13412 could be recycled alongside non-degradable bags so long as they did not exceed 10% of the mix.

Andres Perello Rodriguez (S&D, ES) thanked Commissioner Potočnik for his interest in Spain’s illegal waste dumps. He thought that Auken’s report was well balanced and that a reduction in bag use of 80% over 5 years was not an unreasonable objective. He thought that it was not an overly costly objective and was one which would safeguard the environment.

Jolanta Emilia Hibner (EPP, PL) said that in order for the proposal to be a success there would need to be a great deal of awareness raising. She questioned who would be responsible for drawing people’s attention to the negative impact of plastic? She noted that in some instances plastic could not be substituted for other materials, or that some plastics may not be easily recycled. She felt that all of these points meant that the EU should proceed slowly with its proposal, ensuring that a multi-speed Europe did not appear with regard to reducing plastic bag consumption. She said that she was supportive of the plastic bag levy, saying that it may help to change behaviour.

Biljana Borzan (S&D, HR) said that Croatia was reliant on tourism and therefore relied on a clean maritime environment. She said that she was therefore glad that her amendment, which made reference to the effects of discarded bags on the maritime environment and tourism, had been adopted. She said that in order to achieve the proposal’s objectives, stringent targets would need to be in place, along with promotion of good practice. She ended by saying that unless action was taken plastic bags would continue to blight the environment and the tourism industry.

Gilles Pargneaux (S&D, FR) said that plastic bag waste was a clear problem, and reiterated the health and environmental concerns which had been raised earlier. He said that he welcomed the Commission’s proposals and was happy that the Parliament’s ENVI Committee had been able to improve upon them.

Marusya Lyubcheva (S&D, BG) said that it was reasonable to restrict the use of plastic bags, especially those lightweight bags which were under 50 microns. Having repeated the health and environmental concerns previously mentioned, she called on Member States to transpose the Directive as soon as it was passed. She said that any delay in doing so or allowing loopholes to develop would seriously weaken the impact of the EU’s policy. She concluded by saying that the Member States could best address the plastic waste issue through use of a combination of levies and prohibitive measures.

Fabrizio Bertot (EPP, IT) said that he felt the Directive was a lost opportunity for Parliament. He complained that his proposed text had been prevented from being presented to the house by an obstructive German delegation in the Parliament’s ITRE Committee. He claimed that his text drew a distinction between oil-based and vegetable-based biodegradable bags. He said that distinguishing between these bag types would have provided significant societal benefits and he felt that the oil lobby had prevented such a move.

Jo Leinen (S&D, DE) said that the Directive would change consumer habits and produce a more sustainable society. He said that the different bag consumption levels across Europe showed that something could be done to address excessive consumption levels. He claimed that introducing a levy would significantly reduce consumption, an approach borne out by the Irish and Finnish experience. He ended by calling for fully biodegradable bags as the best long term solution.

Commissioner Janez Potočnik summarised the debate by saying that it was clear that there was consensus that something ought to be done to address plastic bag waste. He said that the proposal was not aimed at addressing the virtues of plastic type, but that would be tackled elsewhere. He said that public support to act meant that the EU should take decisive action. He went on to say that there was no real lobbying from the business community during debate and that he did not experience any pressure in the context of debating banning lightweight bags. He accepted that there was not yet an answer on the biodegradability of existing biodegradable bags. He said that these bags did not yet degrade fast enough to address marine waste issues and that they had potential to disrupt conventional recycling processes. He said that they would need longer term scrutiny, before an answer could be arrived at. Turning to the question of introducing targets he said that the Member States showed large differences in plastic bag consumption, something which made it difficult to decide on a single target. He also made the point that different Member States used different measures and targets to achieve the same eventual result. He reiterated the tools which the proposal made available for Member States and said that it was for them to use them as they see fit. He concluded by saying that it would be preferable if a light touch solution was found to the problem.

Margrete Auken (Greens/EFA, DK) closed the debate by asking Commissioner Potočnik if he felt it embarrassing that only the ECR supported the Commission’s proposal. She said that the initial Commission proposal only made recommendations, but that in her view, clear targets were needed. She said that Member States should then make sure that their arrangements led to reduced consumption of plastic bags. She claimed that there was a lot of low hanging fruit in countries where no action was being taken and that price levies may be a way to achieve the proposal’s aims. Turning to the issue of biodegradability, she said that better methods to measure biodegradability were needed. She said that there could prove to be difficulties if biodegradable bags were recycled alongside normal bags, and this would need to be looked into.

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