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Economic and Social Policies, PUBLICATIONS

Plastic bags, forever?

Written by Dessislava Yougova

Updated in April 2015

Plastic bags, forever?

© Dmitry Naumov / Fotolia

Plastic bags save energy and reduce CO2 compared to alternative materials, are useful in transporting food and prevent food waste by keeping food products fresh. They are part of a flourishing industry. But plastics can persist in the environment for hundreds of years and plastic waste is widespread and accumulating. Plastics constitute a large part of marine debris, especially the single-use items: packaging, bags, bottles. Even those plastics which are degradable do not disappear completely in the natural environment. After a time they turn into microscopic particles, microplastics, which are harmful for the environment and especially for marine ecosystems.

In November 2013 the European Commission published legislative proposal aiming to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags. It provides direction and contains recommendations but no binding measures, and no EU-wide ban on plastic bags.

All stakeholders admit that the issue of plastic bags is an ongoing problem for the environment and for wildlife. NGOs warn that it could become a problem for human health too. This forms part of the bigger issue of plastic waste management. Currently growing populations in developing countries could lead to a real ‘tsunami’ of plastic waste, whilst according to the UNEP only 1% is recycled. In the EU “every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter” (EC press release). The economic and environmental costs will be considerable if the problem of plastic bags is not tackled in the short term. However, opinions diverge regarding the measures that should be taken: charges, national reduction targets, total ban, reusing as raw materials etc. According to the plastics industry, there is no need for reduction targets for plastic bags because it will be difficult to implement them. Improving waste collection systems and treatment of post-consumer plastic waste, changing littering behaviour, considering and even banning landfill, charging for all bags, and recycling are better solutions than banning plastics. Certain researchers argue that efforts should be made at an earlier stage and that products have to be designed for life and end of life. In this context the issue of bio-plastics and degradable plastics should be addressed. NGOs consider that finding alternatives to plastic bags or banning them are the best solutions. Reducing and charging for all plastic bags, without any exemption for bio-plastics or very lightweight bags, are other possible ways.

Draft report, written by MEP Margrete Auken (The Greens/EFA, Denmark) was approved by the EP Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in March 2014. It amended the EC proposal in order to fix clear and ambitious targets.

Following the Parliament’s first reading on 16 April 2014 and the Council position published on 4 March 2015, the new directive (amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags) was adopted on 28 April 2015 (procedure file).

Overview

Plastic bags – Ending our addiction, TVLINK Europe (a video on-line distribution platform)
This video news release presents the environmental effects of plastic bags and shows the imaginative solutions that some EU Member States are using to tackle it.
See also the script, 8 p.

Impact Assessment for a Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and to the Council amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags, 76 p.
Identifies critical issues related to plastc bags, ananlyses the current situation and different options to tackle the problem, overviews national measures to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags.

Reports for the European Commission, DG Environment

Assistance to the Commission to complement an assessment of the socio-economic costs and benefits of options to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags in the EU: Final report, Eunomia Research & Consulting, October 2012, 109 p.
The aim of this report is to analyse the size of the bags producing sector in the EU and to assess the economic and social impacts of different policy options to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags.

Assessment of impacts of options to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags: Final report, BIO IS, September 2011, 133 p.
This report identifies the problem, describes the policy context and compares the policy options to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags.

Analysis

Issue paper to the “International conference on prevention and management of marine litter in European seas“, Berlin, March 2013, 98 p.
This paper summarizes the impacts of marine litter and describes its sources and monitoring in European waters.

The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: A review, Stephanie L. Wright, Richard C. Thompson, Tamara S. Galloway, in: Environmental pollution, n° 178, February 2013, pp. 483-492
According to this research paper “the accumulation of microplastic debris has presented a new marine habitat where biological interactions are taking place. This habitat and its environmental impacts are still emerging areas of research.”

Sustainability of bio-based plastics: general comparative analysis and recommendations for improvement, Kenneth Geiser [et al.], in: Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 23, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 47–56 – abstract
In order to define a sustainable bio-based plastic this study evaluates trough Life Cycle Assessment information the environmental, health, and safety impacts of the bio-based plastics currently in commercial use or under development. It concludes that none of them are fully sustainable and lists a number of recommendations for improving their sustainability.
See also the article in Science for Environment Policy.

Uncertainty and sensitivity in the carbon footprint of shopping bags, Tuomas Mattila [et al.], in: Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 15, Issue 2, April 2011, pp. 217–227 – abstract
Several shopping bag alternatives (polyethylene, paper, cotton, biodegradable modified starch, and recycled polyethylene) were compared with life cycle assessment in view of their Carbon footprints.

Life Cycle Assessment of supermarket carrier bags, Chris Edwards, Jonna Meyhoff Fry, Environment Agency (UK), February 2011, 120 p.
This study assesses the life cycle environmental impacts of the production, use and disposal of different carrier bags for the UK.

Assessing the environmental impacts of oxy-degradable plastics across their life cycle: Report to the DEFRA, Noreen Thomas [et al.], Loughborough University, 2010, 104 p.
The aims of this research project is to assess the environmental effects of oxo-degradable plastics from their production to disposal. The final report concludes that “incorporating additives into petroleum-based plastics to accelerate their degradation does not improve the environmental effects of the plastic”.

Economic impacts of marine litter, John Mouat, Rebeca Lopez Lozano, Hannah Bateson, KIMO International, 2010, 117 p.
Cigarette butts, plastic bags and food containers are the top 3 items of beach debris. The objective of this research is to investigate the economic impact of marine litter on coastal communities throughout the Northeast Atlantic region.

Plastic carrier bags: Sustainable trade and recovery, a report by Mepex Consult for the stakeholders of Plastretur (Norway), 2008 (summary), 9 p.
This report analyses the situation in Norway and the debate in other countries, and gives alternative solutions to the ban on plastic carrier bags.

The context

Plastic waste

Plastic waste: ecological and human health impacts, Science for Environment policy, DG Environment News Alert Service, November 2011, 44 p.
This research paper analyses the state of plastic waste in the environment and its impacts on the health of ecosystems.

Plastic waste in the environment, BIO Intelligence Service, 2011, 171 p.
This report overviews trends in plastic waste generation and management and their impacts. It also develops a baseline scenario and defines policy options that could change that scenario.

Plastic waste: redesign and biodegradability, Science for Environment policy, DG Environment News Alert Service, June 2011, 8 p.
This brief considers potential benefits from redesigning plastic products and impacts on environmental, economic and social level. It summarizes current knowledge and policy implications.

Biodegradability of plastics

Benefits and challenges of bio- and oxo-degradable plastics: A comparative literature study, S. Deconinck and B. De Wilde, OWS, August 2013, 118 p.
This report, prepared for PlasticsEurope, compares bio- and oxo-degradable plastics regarding benefits and challenges of their use and treatment.

Sustainability of bio-based plastics: general comparative analysis and recommendations for improvement, Clara Rosalía Álvarez-Chávez [et al.], in: Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 23, Issue 1, March 2012, pp. 47–56, only abstract is available; see also the summary in Science for Environment policy
According to this study there are no bio-plastics on the market or under development that are fully sustainable.

Microplastic particles as a vector in transporting persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic substances in the oceans: Proceedings of the GESAMP international workshop, UNESCO-IOC (Paris), 28-30 June 2010, 69 p.
GESAMP, the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection, is an advisory body consisting of specialized experts nominated by the sponsoring agencies (IMO, FAO, UNESCO-IOC, UNIDO, WMO, IAEA, UN, UNEP). Its principal task is to provide scientific advice concerning the prevention, reduction and control of the degradation of the marine environment to the sponsoring agencies. See also the brochure Microplastics in the ocean, 8 p.

Assessing the environmental impacts of oxy-degradable plastics across their life cycle: Report to the DEFRA, Noreen Thomas [et al.], Loughborough University, 2010, 104 p.
The aim of this research project is to assess the environmental effects of oxo-degradable plastics from their production to disposal. The final report concludes that “incorporating additives into petroleum-based plastics to accelerate their degradation does not improve the environmental effects of the plastic”.

Biodegradable and compostable alternatives to conventional plastics, Song, J.H., Murphy, R.J., Narayan, R. & Davies, G.B.H., in: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2009, 14 p.; see also the summary in Science for Environment policy
Over 67 million tonnes of packaging waste is generated annually in the EU but the rates of recycling remain low for most plastic packaging. This study compares biodegradable with conventional plastics and examines waste management options for them.

Biodegradability of plastics, Yutaka Tokiwa, Buenaventurada P. Calabia, Charles U. Ugwu, Seiichi Aiba, in: International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 10(9), 2009, 21 p.
This paper discusses microbial and enzymatic biodegradation of plastics and some factors that affect their biodegradability.

Stakeholder views

Lightweight plastic carrier bags, Position paper on EP amendments to Directive 94/62/EC, EuroCommerce, March 2014

Single use carrier bags: EU passes buck to Member States, European Environmental Bureau (EEB), November 2013

Plastic shopping bags, Position of European Bioplastics, November 2013

Position paper on plastic carrier bags, Municipal Waste Europe, March 2012

Stakeholder consultation on options to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags and options to improve the requirements of biodegradability in the Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste and the visibility of biodegradable packaging products to consumers, from 17.05.2011 to 9.08.2011
contributions
statistics of the results

Country approach

Proposition de loi visant à interdire les sacs oxofragmentables, Assemblée nationale (France), janvier 2014

Single-use plastic bag charge for England: Call for evidence, DEFRA, November 2013

Measures concerning the use of plastic carrier bag: Information by the Austrian delegation, meeting of the Council (Environment), 14 March 2011

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