Under Tuesday's deal, customers in German shops and department stores can expect to pay higher fees for plastic bags from July 1. The change also means that retailers offering free bags will gradually be much harder to find.
However, the agreement, cemented by Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks and Trade Association President Josef Sanktjohanser in Berlin, is not legally binding and allows companies to join voluntarily.
As a first step, the plan is to have a price on 80 percent of plastic bags by 2018. Sanktjohanser said 260 retail companies have committed to the initiative, which aims to ultimately deter customers from using plastic bags.
The bags in question are the thicker variety given out in department and clothing stores, while flimsy plastic bags often used in fresh produce shops will remain free.
An EU-wide effort
The consumption of plastic bags varies greatly across the European Union, but on average each person uses just under 200 bags per year. The EU wants to see that number drop to 90 bags per person by 2019, and to 40 per person by 2025.
Germans use around 70 bags per person each year. That's one reason why the government has opted against implementing a law to reduce plastic use. Environment Minister Hendricks said instead the ministry would monitor progress very closely to see "how well the agreement with retailers is implemented."
She added that the situation would be reassessed in two years, and the ministry would consider abandoning the agreement and taking its own action in the event that the plan fails.
Under the agreement with retailers, companies have the freedom to set the cost of their plastic bags. Environment groups have been critical of the deal, accusing the government of pandering to the needs of businesses by making commitments voluntary instead of legally binding.
According to Germany's Federal Environment Agency, 30 million tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans each year.
Plastic bags need an estimated 500 years to disintegrate, which means they are constantly building up in the envionment.
Hundreds of thousands of birds, sea turtles, fish and marine mammals die annually from ingestion or entanglement in plastic debris. Tons of microplastics have been found in the stomachs of marine animals, and much of it eventually ends up on our plates.
nm/jm (AFP, dpa)