Business & Economy

EU move to end use of thin plastic bags gathers steam

15 January, 2014

The European Parliament called yesterday (14 January) for a ban on the most hazardous and lightweight plastic bags by 2020, passing a proposal issued by the EU executive Commission late last year.

In a vote in Strasbourg yesterday (14 January), EU lawmakers approved the proposals to amend the EU directives on packaging and packaging waste, which aim to curb the damage plastic waste wreaks on the environment, particularly in the oceans.

MEPs went beyond the European Commission's initial text, published in November, by introducing binding EU targets for collecting and sorting up to 80% of waste.

Lawmakers called on the Commission to make proposals by 2014 to phase out by 2020 the landfilling of recyclable and recoverable waste, read a statement by the Parliament.

“Parliament has shown the way to deal with the huge problem of the detrimental impact of plastic waste on the environment and human health. We said today that we want to change bad habits and account for our products, from production through to final disposal,” said Vittorio Prodi, the Italian Socialist and Democrat MEP who drafted the Parliament’s written resolution.

The plastic bags targeted by the Commission proposal are those with a maximum thickness of below 50 microns (0.05 millimetres), deemed as having the most destructive effect on ecosystems.

Vanya Veras, the secretary-general of the association Municipal Waste Europe, told EurActiv in an interview that “in countries where there is separate collection and/or sorting of plastic wastes, the lightweight plastics are more difficult to sort and therefore are most often either landfilled or treated through energy recovery”.

They also contain often harmful chemicals known to pose a danger to marine life.

Veras said “in countries which landfill mostly and often do so in unmanaged landfills (dumps), this lightweight plastic is easily carried by wind and rain into the wider environment including the sea”.

To the plastics industry, the report showed the need to consider plastic as a valuable resource, which must makes its way back into the economy after first use.

“Plastics are a too valuable resource to be carelessly discarded or buried in landfills, as such we call for a strong enforcement of the current EU waste legislation to reduce to zero the amount of recyclable and high-calorific waste going to landfill”, said Karl Foerster, the executive director of PlasticsEurope, in a statement welcoming the report.

MEPs stressed that plastic recycling contained unexploited economic potential as the level of recycling remained low, at 25%. The European Commission has said that enforcing EU waste rules could create 400,000 jobs across the now 28-country bloc.

In the parliamentary statement, MEPs said such enforcement could save the EU economy €72 billion a year.

Incineration complementary but not encouraged

The Prodi report also contained calls for the EU to discourage incineration, unless all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Burning waste for energy recovery can hinder the development of recycling and has been linked to causing more carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants, a resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe previously told EurActiv.

The plastics industry said incineration should “remain a preferable option” to landfilling when sustainable recycling poses is too challenging. “Energy recovery is presented as a complementary option for those plastics that cannot be sustainably recycled as plastics waste is not a homogeneous material”, Foerster said.

The Commission estimates that every EU citizen uses some 200 plastic bags every year. Some 90% of these are estimated to be lightweight bags.

In Denmark and Finland, the yearly average consumption of thin plastic bags is only four per person, compared to 466 in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.

Analysts credit Denmark and Finland’s awareness campaigns and introduction of charges for the reduction in plastic bag use.

The EU executive is due to publish a review of waste policy by May this year.