Topic of the Month October 2011


Plastic bags on trial

EU Commission considers ban

“Plastic bags are the most excessive expression of consumer society”, the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” criticises. While the environmental organisation “Robin Wood” adds: “Plastic bags don’t belong on rubbish dumps; they should instead become a thing of the past – as quickly as possible”. The image of plastic bags has been ruined ever since the environmental movement succeeded in ingraining the slogan “jute instead of plastic” in the hearts and minds of many people. They are bought and used even so; after all, they are practical and convenient. The problem: they are used on average for less than 30 minutes and generally end up in the dustbin after they have been used just once. One million plastic bags are in use worldwide per minute (!). To meet the demand in the EU, our continent produces plastic carrier bags with a total weight of two million cars every year, i.e. the incredible amount of 3.4 million tonnes (data from 2008).

The wasteful use of plastic has prompted the EU Commission to take action. The alarm is sounded in the 171-page report “Plastic Waste in the Environment” that appeared in April 2011 ( primarily because of ocean pollution. We are familiar with the phenomenon in the Pacific: under the influence of the currents, a floating island of plastic waste the size of Central Europe has formed between California and Hawaii, the weight of which is estimated to total three million tonnes. It is frequently the case that whales, seals and sea turtles confuse plastic bags with jellyfish, so that they eat them and die. Birds swallow indigestible pieces of plastic or feed their young with them. Another problem: plastic does not disintegrate in water; it is merely pulverised, which can take centuries. It gets into the food chain as a result, including additives that may be toxic. There are already six kilograms of plastic in the Pacific Ocean for each kilogram of plankton ... Not a problem for Europeans, one might be tempted to think, but the territorial waters of the EU are affected too: scientists have counted an average of 115,000 plastic particles per square kilometre off the coasts of France and Italy. The total weight of the plastic particles currently floating in the Mediterranean is estimated to be 500 tonnes.

Italy, which is the front runner in Europe with an annual consumption of 20 billion plastic bags, has taken action in the meantime, imposing a ban that took effect at the beginning of the year. As a result of this, conventional plastic bags have disappeared from retail outlets and have been replaced by ones made from compostable bioplastic produced, for example, from corn starch. There has already been a complete ban in France since 2010, with Paris initiating the development as long ago as 2007. Two petitions have in the meantime been submitted to the German Parliament that urge a ban to be imposed on plastic bags (Petition 3398 of 22.3.2009 and Petition 9937 of 8.2.2010, signed by the petitioners and 2,967 co-signers), but parliament has not responded yet.

At the international level, it is not we Europeans who are pioneering such bans anyway; this “honour” goes to countries in Africa (e.g. Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania) and Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea, for example). Austria and Australia are leaning towards a total ban at the moment too, something that has already been done in a number of the Australian territories. In the USA, bans have only been introduced on plastic bags so far in the Californian cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The distribution of plastic bags free of charge is prohibited in almost half of the world in the meantime. Since 2008, this has been true of China as well, where – according to Western press sources – more than 1,000 billion (!) plastic bags were consumed per year. The retail trade even makes exceptions in Germany, however: whereas supermarkets demand payment for plastic bags, such outlets as department stores, shoe shops or pharmacies quietly provide them free of charge.

The European Commission is no longer willing to stand on the sidelines watching the sometimes more and sometimes less systematic action taken by individual member states; instead of this, its aim is to introduce EU-wide rules to reduce plastic bag consumption. From 17. May to 9. August 2011, every EU citizen was therefore invited to participate in an online survey in English (web-based consultation): “The European Commission is asking the public [...] if charging and taxation would be effective, or if other options such as an EU-level ban on plastic carrier bags would be better.“ A total of 15,338 replies were received. 96.9 per cent came from private individuals, while the rest were accounted for by industrial associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities etc. The most important results: 70.55 per cent of the participants were in favour of a EU-wide ban on plastic carrier bags. 61.80 per cent agreed that an increase in the cost of plastic bags would lead to a reduction in their use (up to now, PE or PP bags, which are unbeatably inexpensive to produce, are always provided at lower cost than the alternatives made from bioplastic, paper or cotton). It is in addition important to the majority to have the choice when shopping between plastic bags that are biologically degradable and ones that are not biologically degradable.

The EU Commission is not expected to take a decision before 2012, because the arguments pro and contra (see boxes) deserve to be considered carefully. Experts think that a ban on conventional plastic bags is unlikely, however, even if “the man or woman on the street” appears to be in favour of one. Because there are no signs of a political majority for a ban, either in Brussels or Berlin. So far, the NPD is the only party that is demanding a complete ban on plastic bags in Germany; “Die Linke” is in favour of a restricted ban and the Green Party is considering the ban option, although it favours taxation along the lines of the Irish model (in Ireland, there has been a raw material tax on every plastic bag since March 2002, when it was 15 cents, with an increase to 22 cents in July 2007; the result has been a reduction in annual consumption from 328 bags per capita to 21). None of the alternatives is likely to find a majority at national or European level – what is involved is an unbiassed evaluation of the environmental acceptability of plastic carrier bags and the alternatives to them. If the life cycle analyses are compared, plastic bags perform better than many critics would like us to believe, as soon as the energy consumed in production is taken into account too:

Comparison with paper bags: paper is not preferable to plastic, because it takes almost twice as much energy to produce paper bags. Another disadvantage is the considerably higher pollution of air and water by nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides and other chemicals with which pulp fibres need to be treated. In addition to this, paper can only be reused to a limited extent, i.e. until it tears or gets wet. Whether paper bags are better or worse than plastic bags in individual cases depends on the raw material used (recovered paper, recycled plastic) and the disposal process.

Comparison with cotton bags: cotton carrier bags have a positive image, but are not environmentally friendly per se; an investigation by the Federal Laboratories for Material Testing and Research at Zurich Technical University in Switzerland has revealed that this is only the case after they have been reused at least ten times – and only on the condition that plastic carrier bags in contrast really are only used once in each case.

Comparison with bioplastic bags: the German environmental agency concludes that “bags made from biologically degradable plastic are not an environmentally sound alternative to bags made from conventional plastic”. One of their shortcomings is the loss of food-growing land (corn, sugar beet) and the large amount of fertilisers, pesticides and energy required to produce the raw materials – before the actual manufacturing process even begins. Another problem is that bioplastic is biologically degradable but is generally sorted out by composting plants even so, so that it ends up in incineration plants. Explanation: bioplastic rots more slowly than other organic waste, so that a time problem is created. Operators are also afraid that confusion might occur and that conventional plastic bags, i.e. ones that are not biologically degradable, are wrongly added to organic waste. If organic bags are incinerated, they do at least help to generate electricity. No pollutants are released apart from carbon dioxide, that is released during composting as well. According to the English/Welsh environmental authorities, there is a tie between the incineration of conventional plastic bags and the composting of bioplastic when all the environmental impact is taken into consideration – both of them are equally good or, if you like, equally bad.
The German environmental agency also points out that the use of bioplastic bags might make consumers less environmentally sensitive: “It is after all particularly important to make sure that consumers do not think they can have a clear conscience when they simply throw the bags away wherever they are out in the country.”
The possibility of inaccurate claims is another factor that has to be considered: compostable plastic bags are not by any means 100% organic; only about half of them is accounted for by corn starch, polylactic acid or similar appetisers for the microbes in compost that digest the plastic. Although the other half of the bag is also biologically degradable, it has been obtained from crude oil – this is the only way to make the material flexible enough.

In view of all this, the German environmental agency thinks that it is “not necessary” to impose a general ban on PE or PP plastic bags, particularly in view of the fact that the recycling level in the German ‘dual system’ is higher than elsewhere at 70 per cent. It is only 20 per cent in some European countries, on the other hand – which means that there really is a need for action to be taken at EU level. Because plastic bags really do pollute the environment in uncontrolled fashion after use in countries in which there are no such recovery systems.

The conclusion for the consumer is: the perfect shopping bag does not exist; what is crucial is reuse. “Reuse is the best alternative!” is how the German environmental agency summarises the situation. What is important to combat is not plastic but the throw-away mentality: irrespective of what it is used for, plastic is a valuable material that does not belong in the dustbin after it has been used once. The Internet platform, which describes its principle as “to question political demands in the environmental field critically and free from ideological bias”, considers a possible ban on plastic bags to be a “regulation that misses the target”: “Anyone who wants to shop environmentally correctly just needs to act in an economically sensible way and reuse the plastic bag he or she is given free of charge or for a few cents. That way, the costs of substantially more expensive cotton bags or the higher price of paper bags are avoided and environmental pollution is reduced.” While it is reported in “Zeit Wissen”, a magazine that appears every two months: “Anyone who is afraid of climate change, should use his plastic bags as often as possible, irrespective of whether they are organic or PE”. Incidentally: plastic bags with the “Blue Angel” mark help to minimise carbon dioxide emission into the air and to reduce oil consumption – recycled plastic accounts for 80 per cent of them.