BRUSSELS, July 12, 2018 (PPI Europe) -EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, campaigns to ban the use of single-use plastic cups, food chains announcing that they will do without plastic straws in the future and supermarkets extending their efforts to replace plastic bags with more sustainable solutions to more and more plastic products - these are just some examples of how Europe is tackling the ever-growing plastic pollution problem. But is it enough? And how far have EU Member States come so far?
On the occasion of the International Plastic Bag Free Day on July 3, Surfrider Foundation Europe (SFE), an environmental non-profit organization, published a report on the implementation of the EU legislation on plastic bag reduction. According to the report calledStill Finding Excuses? Time for Europe to act against plastic bag pollution, which SFE released with contributions from Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), EU countries have been slow in phasing out single-use plastic bags and curbing plastic pollution.
“Rather than banning single-use plastic bags, most countries have opted for either voluntary agreements with the retailers or for a charge on lightweight carrier plastic bags, which in some countries will only come into effect next year,” SFE and ZWE said in a joint statement. “Although a tax can have an impact on consumer behavior, ZWE and SFE highlight how phasing out single-use plastic bags will require a restriction on the supply side,” the organizations added.
The report also highlights concerns regarding the exemption from any tax on or restrictions for very lightweight plastic bags, as well as bio-based and biodegradable bags. ZWE and SFE highlight how this constitutes a major contradiction in the fight against plastic bag pollution and throw-away culture and emphasize that existing reusable alternatives must be prioritized.
Directive 2015/270:In April 2015, a European directive was adopted to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags in Europe. Directive 2015/270 requires EU member states to drastically reduce their annual consumption of plastic bags to 90 bags per person by December 31, 2019 and 40 bags by December 31, 2025. Moreover, the directive calls on EU member states to transpose the law and put measures into legislation by November 27, 2016.
However, more than 18 months after the directive’s transposition deadline, SFE found that the results fall short of expectations in many member states.
Time to deliver:According to the SFE report, the European directive on the reduction of plastic bags has not been transposed throughout the entire EU and the actions undertaken by some countries remain extremely weak in terms of effectiveness.
“In June and July 2017, the European Commission sent final warnings to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Poland and Spain for continued failure to notify the commission of their measures for the transposition of the directive, threatening those countries to start infringement procedures at the EU Court of Justice if they were not taking and notifying the appropriate measures,” the report said. It added that the warnings might have contributed to the adoption of measures by a number of countries where action had not been taken yet in the second half of 2017 and Q1 2018. Still, feedback from the ground reportedly revealed lack of control and enforcement in several EU member states, with bags continuing to be distributed for free in many places, including in open air markets.
For its report, SFE studied the evolution of legislation from November 2016 to June 2018. The organization based its research on press articles, legal literature and contributions from both its own volunteer network and networks from other NGOs. The results of the report are displayed in the visual.
Who lags behind?According to SFE, Belgium has adopted bans in the regions of Wallonia and Brussels, while Flanders and the Belgian federal government are yet to adopt any measures on plastic bags.
Other countries like, for example, Austria, Finland and Germany, have opted for voluntary agreements, i.e. the government encourages retailers to take measures to reduce their consumption of plastic bags, in particular by taxing them, without however obliging them to do so. “Surfrider Foundation Europe does not consider this measure as being effective, as voluntary agreements have proven not to put sufficient pressure for all business players to act,” SFE commented.
Elsewhere, countries such as Denmark, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Portugal impose a compulsory tax to be set up by retailers on plastic bags. “While obviously more dissuasive for the consumer, this measure keeps plastic bags on the market, creating a business at the expense of the environment that continues to suffer from the presence of plastic bags,” SFE noted. The organization added that in several countries, such as Croatia, Latvia and Slovenia, the tax will apply only from January next year, i.e. the deadline set in the EU legislation, which, according to SFE, “shows a lack of ambition.”
According to the report, only a few countries – Italy, France and very recently Romania – have adopted a ban, and Spain is foreseeing a ban from 2021.
“Where ambitious measures have been in place and fully enforced, important reductions in plastic bag use have been achieved on the ground. For example, after a seven-year ban, the consumption of plastic bags in Italy fell by more than 50%, while previously Italians ranked among the biggest consumers of plastic bags in Europe,” SFE said. It added that in Ireland, the first country that introduced a tax on plastic bags back in 2002, the use of plastic bags has dropped by 90%.
Reasons for concern:Although the adoption of the EU plastic bag directive was a major step in the actions against plastic pollution, the SFE report points out remaining concerns over the role of very lightweight plastic bags on the one hand and bio-based and biodegradable bags on the other.
“It is contradictory […] that so-called ‘very lightweight’ plastic bags, i.e. those plastic bags less than 15 microns thick, can be exempted from the measures countries have to adopt under the plastic bag directive,” SFE noted. The organization added that these bags are even less resistant to multiple uses and are generally the “object of an ephemeral existence due to their single use, ending up in the environment in the worst cases.”
Regarding bio-based and biodegradable bags, SFE noted that these types of bags are often referred to as “bioplastics” indistinctively, while they encompass very different realities.
“Bio-based bags are plastic bags based partly or fully on biomass resources, but can be designed to behave as conventional plastic bags and therefore have the same impact on the environment,” SFE explained in the report. It added that biodegradable bags are plastic bags that can, with the help of micro-organisms, break down into natural elements and can be based on biomass resources and/or conventional petroleum sources and are typically compostable only under controlled conditions.
“In response to the need to reduce plastic bags, more and more ‘biodegradable’ and ‘bio-based’ bags are being distributed by retailers, which insist on their green credentials to better sell the lie to consumers. These supposed solutions should not replace the primary objective of prohibiting any disposable plastic bags and promoting the use of reusable alternatives instead,” SFE said.
In the end, the SFE report urged the European Commission and member states to promote “the only sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic bags,” i.e. reusable bags as, for example, canvas bags, wicker baskets, nets, backpacks or wooden crates.
DUH calls for steering tax:Elsewhere, Germany’s Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), a non-governmental environmental and consumer protection organization, has called for a Euro 0.22 steering tax on plastic bags. According to the organization, some 2.4 billion plastic bags are unnecessarily used every year in Germany and pollute the environment. “The voluntary commitment of the retail sector is not sufficient, and for this reason DUH calls for effective legislation to avoid environmentally harmful disposable plastic bags as well as fruit and vegetable plastic bags. We advocate waste avoidance through reusable shopping bags,” the NGO said in a statement.
“The German government has a big heart for the plastics industry and refuses to adopt effective legal regulations – in contrast to what is happening in more and more other countries. We demand a steering tax of at least Euro 0.22 on disposable plastic bags. Germany should follow the lead of progressive countries as, for example, Ireland and Denmark, where plastic bag consumption has dropped to 14 and four per year, respectively, through this measure,” DUH’s general manager Jürgen Resch noted.
According to DUH, around three billion plastic bags for fruit and vegetables have to be added to Germany’s annual consumption of disposable plastic bags. “The efforts to avoid plastic bags should therefore be extended to these particularly small-sized bags,” Thomas Fischer, DUH’s circular economy manager, explained. According to him, there are now reusable nets available for the transport of fruit and vegetables, and at least some supermarket chains have reportedly integrated the weight of these nets into their cash register system and automatically deduct it when weighing fruit and vegetables. “This is a good start,” Fischer commented.