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Plastic bags filled with groceries sit in a cart at the Fred Meyer store in Grants Pass, Oregon.
Are the plastic bags' days numbered?Image: AP

Burying plastic

May 23, 2011

The EU wants to get rid of plastic bags. The bloc's executive is considering a range of options – including an outright ban – in an effort to cut down on the amount of destructive plastic ending up in the biosphere.


The European Union's environment chief is determined to slash the bloc's use of plastic bags, and an outright ban is on the table.

"We are considering all possibilities including a ban in the European Union," said Janez Potocnik last Wednesday at the launch of a public consultation to test how Europeans feel about the problem.

According to the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, each person in Europe uses an average of 500 plastic bags every year, and mostly only once.

With many bags ending up in the ocean, the damage to the environment is huge.

'More plastic than plankton'

Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment
Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the EnvironmentImage: AP

In Mediterranean countries plastic bags are a common sight on beaches, in parks or strewn in city streets.

They are often thrown away, without a thought, to be carried where the elements take them, and much of the time, this is out to sea.

Giant layers of plastic garbage and vast numbers of small plastic particles litter our oceans. According to Potocnik's office, about 250 billion pieces of plastic – weighing roughly 500 tons – are floating in the Mediterranean Sea.

It could take centuries for all the particles to dissolve. "We are very concerned about these small plastic particles," said Heribert Wefers, who is a pollution control expert for BUND, the German franchise of the environmental organization, Friends of the Earth.

"There are more plastic particles than plankton in some parts of the ocean. Fish end up eating this. They have stomachs more full of plastic than plankton and can eventually starve to death with a full stomach," Wefers said.

Threat to birds

Sea birds are also threatened by plastic debris. They consume plastic particles when they eat fish and accumulate plastic in their stomachs. They also get caught in bags and suffocate.

Besides contaminating land and sea, plastic bags have another major environmental disadvantage. "They are made out of crude oil, a resource that will eventually run out," said Stephan Gabriel Haufe, a spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency.

"If we use less plastic bags, we also save on mineral oil."

Which leads to a saving of carbon emissions as well, because many of those plastic bags that don't end up in the ocean, are consigned to incineration, points out BUND's Heribert Wefers.

Plastic shopping bags littering the beach on Dublin Bay
Ireland has successfully curbed plastic waste with a bag levyImage: AP

International movement

According to BUND, a quarter of countries worldwide has taken action against plastic bags.

Australia, India and some African countries have issued various forms of bans on plastic bags. Meanwhile, in Belgium, Ireland and some US states, plastic bags are taxed to make them less attractive for consumers.

The strategy has succeeded, according to Heribert Wefers. In Ireland, taxing led to a 90 percent drop in the use of plastic bags.

China has also banned shops from handing out plastic bags for free, and consumers are required to request and pay for them.

"The outcome is that the amount of plastic bags littering the environment has been reduced by two thirds," he said.

Italy has recently issued a ban for shopping bags made of conventional plastic material. It's betting on bio-degradable synthetics, instead.

In Germany, bio-degradable rubbish bags have been criticized by environmental organizations for deceiving consumers, because many end up incinerated next to ordinary plastic bags.

"In fact there are many composting plants, which cannot determine whether a plastic bag is degradable or not", said Heribert Wefers.

Different problems in different countries

Burlap shopping bag
Alternatives to plastic are mostly an improvement, but not always perfectImage: DW

Yet German environmental officials are skeptical about whether a ban of plastic bags throughout the European Union would make sense, because they are used very differently.

For example, in Germany the average person uses 65 plastic bags per year, which is way below the EU average

Also the German recycling system is very efficient. Much plastic packaging is collected in special garbage containers and mostly recycled into new plastic bags or other synthetic material.

Nevertheless things can be improved in Germany – even without a ban. Heribert Wefers has several ideas. "We have to put an end to this throwaway attitude. We could tax plastic bags, even the bio-degradable ones as well as paper bags," he said.

Germany's Federal Environment Agency says getting more longevity out of materials is always useful, and warns that alternatives to plastic aren't always so environmentally friendly.

"Paper bags don’t make sense, as they contain chemicals to stabilize the paper, so it is not an alternative. The alternative is burlap and cotton," said agency spokesperson, Stephan Gabriel Haufe.

Autor: Marco Müller
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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