Opinion divided over proposals for Euro-wide plastic bag ban

Legislative proposals for a European-wide ban on plastic carrier bags must be based on sound evidence, experts have warned, amid fears that Euro MPs will bow to political pressure.

Such proposals could be unveiled next month when the European Commission publishes its green paper on plastic waste. It is thought the paper will take into account outcomes of the Commission’s recent public consultation on the issue in which 70% of respondents voted in favour of an outright ban.

In England, momentum is gathering for such a ban – an e-petition to ‘banish plastic bags’ launched last week has almost 650 signatures and is backed by high profile figures including Tory MP and eco-campaigner Zac Goldsmith. If the e-petition gets 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.

However, some industry observers believe a ban could do more harm than good. Environmental consultant Julia Hailes, who has previously advised Marks & Spencer on its packaging strategy, would prefer to see a charging structure implemented – similar to the one in Wales.

Speaking to edie, Hailes said: “My particular concern is that if plastic bags are banned, people will think that paper bags are better – but they’re actually worse. Paper bags take the same amount of oil to make as a plastic bag, but they’re about six times heavier and take up ten times more space.”

It’s a view echoed by industry association PlasticsEurope, which has pointed to studies showing that the environmental impact of the plastic carrier bag over its life cycle is lower than alternatives if bags were reused.

Hailes says there is also the law of perverse consequences “which means that banning single use carrier bags will lead to people buying plastic bags for their compost, for collecting dog poo and other such things – leading to more plastic waste”.

AEA’s principal consultant for waste management & resource efficiency Sarahjane Widdowson thinks in principle a ban would be “a good thing” in terms of acting as a motivator for behaviour change, but says in practice it could prove detrimental.

“The difficulty is that for any ban proposed the resulting behaviour changes need to be thought through to ensure that the resulting impacts are not worse than the original intention,” she told edie.

Widdowson feels a more holistic approach is needed. “If plastic bags are banned, what will people use as bin liners for example? Also, what of the alternatives? Cloth bags need to be used many times before they have a lower environmental impact – it’s far from black and white.”

Retailers meanwhile have largely objected to an outright ban, preferring a voluntary approach. The British Retail Consortium has criticised the consultation, saying that it effectively forced respondents to choose between a ban and a charge.

Despite this, a ban would appear to have strong public support – around 15,000 EU citizens responded to the EC consultation, which ran between May and August last year.

The EC is considering implementing the policy partly in response to legal uncertainty over whether national bans are compatible with EU law. Italy adopted Europe’s first outright ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags at the start of 2011, but this was challenged by the plastics industry.

National policies on plastic bags vary widely. Denmark, Ireland and Bulgaria charge a tax while Belgium applies a fee that goes directly to a plastic collection and recycling firm.

Retailers in France, Germany, Portugal, Hungary and the Netherlands have begun charging for plastic bags voluntarily. In other countries, plastic bags are still given away for free.

Maxine Perella

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