In North America, the plastics industry has been battling bag taxes and bans on local and state levels. But in Europe, the industry has faced a different kind of challenge — one that now threatens to spread like wildfire.
At the start of this year, the Italian government finally implemented its much-discussed — and long-delayed — restrictions on the use of non-biodegradable single-trip plastic carrier bags. The move meant the country is the first in Europe to introduce what is effectively a complete ban on traditional polyethylene bags of this kind.
Italy is far from alone in implementing restrictions on plastic carrier bags, either in Europe or beyond. Ireland has operated its nationwide carrier bag-tax system since 2002. Many other countries around the world operate schemes at regional levels, while others are planning similar measures.
The European Plastics Converters has pledged to oppose the Italian move. And it should, because it is only by countering decisions made on bad science that this industry has any hope of changing the frustrating, negative perceptions of its products.
But the odds may be stacked against EuPC. The most recent comments out of Brussels strongly imply that the European Commission is not interested in reversing Italy's ban. In fact, the EC itself may soon launch a study to investigate the feasibility of a ban on plastic bags throughout the European Union.
The plastics industry has some big weapons in its arsenal. There are a number of scientific studies that point to the environmental benefits of PE bags, and recent polls show that the majority of the public wants to continue to get “free” single-use bags.
But bag opponents, concerned about litter and marine pollution, seem to be gaining momentum. And in Europe it appears that plastic bags may lose in a landslide.
Is science on plastics' side?
Consumers seem to believe plastic bags are a big problem. But what is really driving these initiatives — fact or fiction?
In environmental terms, the evidence against lightweight PE carrier bags seems relatively weak. As long ago as 2004, a study commissioned by French retailer Carrefour compared single-use PE bags with reusable-plastic and single-use paper bags and showed that by almost any measure — energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions or solid waste generation — plastics perform better than paper. The results of more recent studies are pretty much the same, including one from the British Environment Agency that concluded that single-use PE grocery bags have a lower carbon footprint than alternative paper or reusable bags.
Italy's acceptance of biodegradable plastics implies biodegradability imparts environmental benefits that traditional plastics cannot. Again, evidence to support that is weak.
A 2009 study by Germany's Institute for Energy and Environmental Research compared virgin and recycled PE against biodegradable plastics in waste bags. It found that the dominant environmental impact factor was not the type of plastic but the amount used.
It seems impossible to believe Italy's restrictions are based on scientific fact. The Italian government's decision cannot therefore be seen as either fair or effective in environmental terms.