Environment

Breaking bag habits

24/11/2017

In the EU, we currently use 100 billion bags per year. This is a tremendous waste because very often they are only used once. Many end up in our oceans and seas. One recent measure in combating this resource waste and littering is the new EU Plastic Bags Directive. It obliges Member States to drastically cut the use of lightweight bags. How are they getting on with this? 

The numbers of plastic bags used per person differs widely among Member States. Some have already achieved impressive results in curbing plastic bag use. Thanks to measures taken over the last couple of years, in Denmark and Finland, the average annual consumption of lightweight plastic bags is just four per person. In Ireland, since the introduction of a levy in 2002, the consumption of single-use plastic bags has fallen from 328 per person per year to just 18 – a reduction of nearly 95 %. 

Nearly 80 % of the litter in the sea comes from the land. Most of it is plastic. We're now finding plastic bags in the stomachs of seabirds and stranded whales, so it's obviously time to act.

European Environment Commissioner
Karmenu Vella

On the other end of the scale, there are countries where the use of bags in 2010 was far above the average – for example 269 bags in Greece and 421 in Bulgaria.

Curbing consumption

Under the new Plastics Bags Directive, national governments must ensure that by the end of 2019 no more than 90 lightweight bags are consumed annually per person. By the end of 2025, that number should drop to 40 bags each. To reach these targets, they can apply different measures. These include charges or levies, or national reduction targets. The targets can be achieved either through compulsory measures or agreements with economic sectors. It is also possible to ban bags – if such bans align with EU law. Member States had to inform the Commission by November 2016 how they are applying the new rules.

Some countries have opted for mandatory charges. Others, such as Germany and Austria, for agreements with the retail sector. Alternatively, France and Italy have banned all but biodegradable and compostable plastic bags. The UK and the Netherlands, in turn, opted for charging for bags. In Estonia, too, bags will no longer be available free of charge.

The Commission is prioritising implementation of the EU Plastic Bags Directive and has therefore already sent warning letters to those Member States from which it had not heard by the deadline.

But curbing the use of plastic bags is only one element in the move towards more sustainable consumption and in order to reduce the leakage of plastics to the environment.

The Commission, as part of the Action Plan on the Circular Economy, is working on a new Plastics Strategy.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said: "We need a vision of a different plastics economy, and we want plastics in the European Union to become circular. That is why, by the end of the year, we will publish a European Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy."

Waste