The European Commission has announced its proposal for reducing the use of lightweight plastic carrier bags in the Europe Union, which gives EU member states the freedom to choose the measures they find most appropriate, including charges, national reduction targets or a ban under certain conditions.
In a statement issued today, environment commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "We're taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem. Every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage. Some member states have already achieved great results in terms of reducing their use of plastic bags. If others followed suit we could reduce today's overall consumption in the European Union by as much as 80 percent."
By adopting the proposal, the Commission said it aims "to limit negative impacts on the environment, in particular in terms of littering, to encourage waste prevention and a more efficient use of resources, while limiting negative socio-economic impacts." It particularly noted the danger that marine littering poses to eco-systems and animals such as fish and birds.
The Commission estimates that in 2010, 98.6 billion plastic carrier bags were used in the EU market. The majority of these were lightweight bags, which are less frequently re-used than thicker ones, it said. It estimates that 8 billion bags are littered in the EU each year.
The consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags varies greatly between EU countries, with annual use per capita ranging between an estimated four bags in Denmark and Finland and 466 bags in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
These large differences make it difficult to implement an EU-wide reduction target, and so each member state is being allowed to set its own target.
"At a later stage the establishment of an EU-wide reduction target could however be considered," said the Commission.
It noted the success of some economic instruments, such as Ireland's levy and Denmark's tax, in cutting bag use. "However, for reasons of subsidiarity and because the scale of the problem varies across member states the proposal foresees that member states design themselves the measures they deem most effective, taking into account existing best practices," said the Commission.
The proposal would be implemented by amending the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The amendments would require member states to adopt measures to reduce the consumption of plastic carrier bags with a thickness below 50 microns. These measures may include the use of economic instruments, such as charges, national reduction targets, and marketing restrictions (subject to the internal market rules of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU).
In an executive summary of the impact assessment of the proposal, the Commission said: "The main environmental benefits are linked to the decline in the amount of waste and the number of bags littered, which translates into lower litter clean-up expenses and expenses incurred in formal waste management (collection, recycling and disposal). These costs are expected to be reduced considerably as consumption of single-use plastic bags diminishes. Lower consumption of single-use plastic bags would also result in more efficient resource use and lower greenhouse gas emissions."
It also assessed economic and social impacts. The Commission said that in the EU, 70 percent of single-use carrier bags are imported.
"The net impacts on producers are expected to be positive," it said. It bases this view on an expected switch to heavier reusable plastic carrier bags, which are mainly produced in the EU.
The net impacts on retailers are also expected to be positive, as initial costs could be offset by the increased sale of reusable alternatives.
The Commission said its assessment shows a "slightly negative" impact on employment levels from its proposal.
The European Parliament and European Council need to approve the proposal for it to take force. Following that, member states will have 12 months to adopt the directive and two years to implement it.