The EU could radically reduce its use of disposable plastic carrier bags over the next 4 years, under plans put forward this week by the Commission.
Under the proposal, EU countries are required to discourage the use of lightweight plastic bags, in whichever way they see fit. Options include taxing or banning the use of carrier bags, or implementing a national reduction target.
On average, every European currently uses 198 single-use plastic bags every year, which represents 1 bag per day for each household. But annual usage varies considerably across the EU, ranging from 4 per person in Denmark and Finland to 466 in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
Changing consumer behaviour
Many of the EU countries which have introduced compulsory levies on the use of throw-away plastic bags have experienced dramatic falls in bag use as a result of consumers being required to pay each time they use a bag.
Although most of the 100 billion plastic bags given out by supermarkets and other shops each year are only used once for 20 minutes or so, they take hundreds of years to degrade and every year 8 billion of them end up in rivers and lakes or littering streets or the countryside.
Deadly environmental impact
Those that are swept out to sea often end up being ingested by marine animals and birds – and the consequences are sometimes fatal for whales, seals and gulls as well as many varieties of endangered turtles. In the North Sea, the stomachs of 94% of all birds contain plastic. At the other end of Europe, plastic bags accounted for 73% of the plastic waste collected by trawlers along the coast of Tuscany.
The EU hopes that its plan will help change attitudes towards consumption and waste disposal.
The new proposals only apply to lightweight carrier bags, as these are less likely to be recycled or reused than thicker bags.
The proposals are the Commission’s response to calls from EU environment ministers for action at an EU level. It follows extensive public consultations which found broad support for an EU-wide initiative.