Ask EP By / January 17, 2017

Plastic bags: EU’s response to reducing consumption

Citizens want to know what the EU is doing to reduce the consumption of plastic bags given the negative impact…

Richard Carey / Fotolia

Citizens want to know what the EU is doing to reduce the consumption of plastic bags given the negative impact on marine wildlife and the environment.

In the EU, plastic carrier bags are considered as packaging under Directive 94/62/EC. The use of plastic carrier bags result in littering and an inefficient use of resources. Moreover, the unmanaged disposal of these bags leads to environmental pollution and aggravates the widespread problem of litter in water bodies, threatening aquatic eco-systems worldwide.

Legal framework

Plastic pollution problem: carrier bag discarded in sea threatens turtles
Richard Carey / Fotolia

The Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packing waste, and the successive amendments, aim to harmonise national measures concerning the management of packaging and packaging waste in order, on the one hand, to prevent any impact thereof on the environment of all Member States as well as of third countries or to reduce such impact, thus providing a high level of environmental protection, and, on the other hand, to ensure the functioning of the internal market and to avoid obstacles to trade and distortion and restriction of competition within the Community.

Directive (EU) 2015/720 amending Directive 94/62/EC, defines measures to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags, including imposing charges or setting national maximum consumption targets.

Objective of EU directive on lightweight plastic bags

Directive 2015/720 entered into force on 26 May 2015 and deadline for transposition in Member States was by 27 November 2016.

The objective of the directive on lightweight plastic bags is 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. More specifically, the proposal aims at reducing the consumption of plastic carrier bags with a thickness of below 50 microns (0.05 millimetres) in the European Union. There is an exemption for very light bags, intended for the protection of fresh produce.

The measures must include either one or both of the following:

  1. defining a maximum annual consumption level of:
    • 90 lightweight plastic carrier bags per person by the end of 2019 (a 50 % reduction compared to 2010) and
    • 40 lightweight plastic carrier bags per person by the end of 2025 (an 80 % reduction compared to 2010)
  2. ensuring that, by the end of 2018, lightweight plastic carrier bags are not provided free of charge at the point of sale of goods or products.

By 27 May 2017, the Commission should present a report to the European Parliament and to the Council, examining the impact of the use of ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic carrier bags on the environment and present a legislative proposal, if appropriate.

Parliamentary questions

MEPs have put several parliamentary written questions to the Commission on plastic bags. In its answer of 16 June 2015, the Commission stated that the ‘directive requires Member States to implement a predefined maximum national consumption objective and/or to put in place instruments ensuring that lightweight plastic carrier bags are not provided free of charge. The measures adopted by Member States have to be proportionate, non-discriminatory and non-protectionist.’

In its answer of 13 June 2016, the Commission sets out that it ‘is preparing an implementing act laying down the specifications for labelling or marking home-compostable lightweight plastic carrier bags. Furthermore, studies are being carried out on behalf of the Commission on the impact of the use of oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags on the environment and on the life cycle impacts of alternatives to very lightweight plastic carrier bags. Results are expected in the second half of 2016’.

In an answer of 1 July 2016, the Commission also explains that ‘Measures to be taken may involve the use of economic instruments and marketing restrictions. Measures may vary depending on the environmental impact of the lightweight plastic carrier bags when they are recovered or disposed of, their composting properties, durability or specific intended use’.

Further information

More details on packaging and packaging waste is available from the European Commission. The European Parliamentary Research Service keysource product highlights links to the views of stakeholders entitled ‘Plastic Bags, Forever?’.

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