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EU plastic bag row

November 18, 2014

Negotiations over a draft European Union law aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastic bags are in their final stage this week. But there's disagreement about a proposed ban on "oxo-biodegradable" plastic bags.

Symbolbild Verschmutzung der Meere
Image: Fotolia/sablin

Negotiations over a draft European Union law aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastic bags are in their final stage this week. Britain and Italy are on opposite sides of an argument about whether to include a ban on "oxo-biodegradable" plastic bags as part of the new law.

The European Parliament would like to see the number of plastic bags used in the EU decline by at least 80 percent by 2019. The draft law is intended to work out how that could be achieved. But it allows member states wide latitude in deciding national policies in support of the objective.

Britain's negotiators say oxo-biodegradable plastic bags should not be banned. Such bags are marketed by UK-based Symphony Environmental, who say the bags are safe.

The Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA), speaking on behalf of Symphony Environmental, said the European Parliament's proposed ban on oxo-biodegradable plastic followed lobbying by "a large Italian company with close links to the Italian government".

Plastic bags carried by a shopper
Several hundred plastic bags a year are used per person in EuropeImage: Getty Images

"They see oxo-biodegradable plastic as a serious competitor," the association said, and claimed that scientific research proved the environmental safety of oxo-biodegradable materials.

Italy's Novamont also offers rival alternatives to conventional plastic bags, in the form of fully biodegradable vegetable matter based bags.

Biodegradable or not?

The dispute centers around whether oxo-biodegradable bags are really biodegradable. The bags are made primarily of conventional polyolefin plastic, like normal non-degradable plastic bags, which can persist for decades or centuries in the environment. The difference is that metals salts are mixed in with the polyolefin during the making of oxo-biodegradable bags. This makes the bags susceptible to degradation through exposure to oxygen in the environment.

This process turns oxo-degradable plastic bags into thousands of tiny separate fragments of polyolefin plastic. The question is whether those tiny fragments then further degrade chemically, and become biodegradable, eventually to be eaten by bacteria - or persist in the environment long enough to harm wildlife, as some environmental campaigners claim.

Magrete Auken, a Danish politician leading negotiations on the draft law for the European Parliament, said she was concerned that euroskepticism and worries about the potential for "Brexit" - as the prospect of Britain leaving the EU has been called - was curbing the appetite for new EU legislation, such as the new law aimed at reducing plastic bag use.

"It's turning into a power struggle of the UK versus the EU," she said.

Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said the draft legislation had become too complex, and that the EU executive had to ensure a law would have the desired effect.

Seabird strangled by discarded fishing line
Plastic debris in the oceans kills uncountable numbers of fish, birds, sea turtles and mammalsImage: Tracey Williams/Newquay Beachcombing

"I'm not sure in this plastic bag thing whether this is still what we intended," he said.

Discarded bags are a big problem

The remains of plastic bags can last for many decades in the environment after they are thrown away. About 100 billion plastic bags are used in the EU every year, and about 8 percent of them end up in the world's oceans, due to careless disposal. Much of the material ends up as small fragments of floating plastic, which enters the food chain of fish and birds.

As a result, several jurisdictions - among them China and California - have enacted outright bans on thin single-use plastic bags.

According to a sampling program of dead beached fulmars (a type of seabird similar to gulls) reported by the European marine environment monitoring organization OSPAR, 94 percent of all fulmars sampled were found to have plastic in their stomachs.

nz/hg (AFP, Reuters)