The European Union pledges to halve plastic bag use by 2019 – can they achieve this before their self-imposed deadline?

Published On : 2017-04-04

Single use plastic bags may soon go the way of the Dodo in Europe. On 29th April 2015, the EU passed a lawto drastically limit the use of plastic bags across the entire continent. These bags are typically discarded after a single use and are a scourge on the environment. They take hundreds of years to biodegrade and can greatly harm marine ecosystems. Around 8 billion plastic bags pollute Europe every single year, according to conservative estimates. The law passed requires member countries to gradually reduce their usage of plastic bags, with an initial threshold of 90 bags per individual per year by the year 2019, culminating in 40 bags by the middle of the next decade. A few outlying countries such as Poland, Hungary, Portugal that are heavy plastic bag users will have to go the extra mile to ensure their compliance with these stringent norms. At the other end of the spectrum, a few member nations such as Luxembourg, France and Finland are already able to comply with the norms.

This legislation should certainly create a win-win situation as billions of plastic bags are directly discarded into the environment as untreated waste. This harms marine ecosystems and birds and damages nature. People must be discouraged from using plastic bags as much as possible. On an average, each EU citizen uses approximately 200 plastic bags every year. Without stringent regulations being passed, this number would have only risen in the future. The regulation is quite flexible with individual member countries being free to decide the approach they wish to take for reducing plastic bag use. A popular method adopted is introducing a compulsory charge for single-use plastic bags. A few countries have already been successful with a national charge for plastic bag use. Strangely, top-performing nations like Finland have no legislation on this issue. The widespread availability of paper bags across the country’s supermarkets has made plastic bags almost obsolete, and Finns use an average of only four plastic bags every year!

While EU states have been given time till 2019 to enact the law, they can certainly ensure compliance before the deadline if they wish to do so. France has already adopted a ban on single-use plastic bags in two stages. While the first stage for ‘lightweight’ shopping bags came into force on 1st July 2016, the second one concerning packaging fruit and vegetable bags came into force on New Year’s Day this year. While this law has met a warm welcome from members of parliament, the future of biodegradable plastic bags is still unknown. Supporters of the material continue insisting that it is a viable biodegradable alternative, while opponents strongly refute this claim. They say that plastic cannot biodegrade, but that it disintegrates into micro particles that remain toxic. The new law compels the European Commission to look into the impact of these so-called biodegradable plastics so that it can be decided whether they are biodegradable, compostable or plastic. It would certainly help a great deal if the European Commission showed more sympathy for the International Bag Free Day, the seventh edition of which was held last year.

For this, it is essential to link the plastic bag ban to EU-wide prevention targets and even taxation as and when required. The revenue collected with such a tax on single-use plastic bags could finance alternatives and play a role in cleaning the massive damage that has already been brought about by plastic bags across land and seas. At the moment, it is well-known that plastic bags are detrimental to the environment and the economy (except biodegradable bags) and many EU nations have realised this by taking steps to reduce plastic bag use. A person sporting reusable bags is seen to be trendier and the environmental awareness campaigns underway in Europe are paving the way towards an eventual Zero Waste society.