The European Union looks at banning plastic bags

The European Union looks at banning plastic bagsPerhaps inspired by the recent Tainted Green article on plastic waste, the European Union is considering a tax or ban on single use plastic bags. The European Commission is taking public comments until August 2011 regarding such policies aimed at reducing plastic waste.

Although plastic carrier bags, such as HDPE bags used for groceries, are recyclable, the size and lightness of the bags allow many to escape the waste management stream. An estimated 500 metric tonnes (over a million pounds) of plastic debris float in the Mediterranean, causing havoc to the marine environment.

The Commission notes that the average European uses around 500 bags a year. Citizens in European countries that have already instituted a tax on plastic bags, however, use much fewer bags. For example, Ireland introduced a levy on plastic bag in 2002, which quickly reduced plastic bag use from an estimated 328 per person to 21 - a whopping 94% decrease.

In addition to a possible tax or ban, the European Commission also wants to improve requirements for labeling bags as “biodegradable” or “compostable.” They define “biodegradable” bags as bags that degrade naturally in the environment, as opposed to “compostable” bags that only decompose in industrial composting facilities. But such distinction could still be misleading. As noted in an earlier article on plastic waste, biodegradable bags don’t really biodegrade - they merely break down into tiny plastic fragments that continue to persist in the environment for a long time.

But would such a ban be successful on this side of the pond? Although some cities – such as San Francisco and Portland – have passed bans, an attempt for a statewide ban in California failed last September. The convenience of single-use bags (and the lobbying of the American Chemistry Council) makes instituting a ban or levy challenging on a state or national level.

Of course an outright ban on plastic grocery bags may have unintended consequences. After all, if plastic grocery bags were banned, what would we use to pick up dog poop?