Bagging It: EU Wants to Reduce Plastic Shopping Bag Use

By Caille Millner

For a while, the European Commission considered banning the use of environmentally unfriendly plastic bags. But given the potential legal problems and threat to thousands of jobs, Brussels is now looking for ways to make single-use bags less attractive. The plastic bag as we know it could be getting a lot more expensive.

The European Union would like to see fewer consumers relying on environmentally unfriendly plastic bags in the future. Zoom
DPA

The European Union would like to see fewer consumers relying on environmentally unfriendly plastic bags in the future.

They clog the ocean. They contaminate waterways. They clump together in landfills for decades, and they get tangled in treetops, requiring government workers to spend valuable time collecting them.

All of this for a plastic bag that the average consumer uses only once. No wonder some experts wanted the European Commission to ban them.

In Brussels, the European Union is studying the best way to reduce the usage of thin, single-use plastic bags, which are convenient for consumers but terrible for the environment. The most effective way to reduce usage, an internal Commission study obtained by SPIEGEL said, is to ban shops from distributing them altogether. But the study found that such a ban would conflict with international and EU trade laws -- and cost many valuable jobs in Europe.

Eager to adopt an EU-wide standard for plastic bags, the European Commission began soliciting public feedback on ways to reduce bag usage last May. The commission asked about charging consumers for individual bags, levying general taxes on the bags or a complete ban on them across the Europe.

Ban No Longer Being Considered

At least one of those options -- the complete ban -- has already been taken off the table. According to the Commission study, a ban would have positive environmental impacts, but it would also "raise difficult legal questions." The report calls a complete ban: "a blunt instrument that gives little flexibility to producers, retailers, or consumers." The report also says that a ban would conflict with international trade law and EU internal market rules.

The study also noted the economic impact of a plastic bag ban. The EU accounts for about 25 percent of global plastics production. The study estimates that a ban would negatively impact between 250-300 plastic bag producers and their 15,000-20,000 employees.

Instead, the study's authors conclude that banning the free distribution of plastic bags would be the best solution for reducing bag usage. The authors recommend that the price "should be set high enough that only a modest amount of (government) revenue is raised," thereby discouraging consumers from using the bags at all. In a large number of countries in Europe, including Germany, stores already charge customers 15 cents or more to purchase many types of plastic bags.

Fewer Single-Use Bags in the Future?

The idea behind the higher price tag is that manufacturers would be more likely to produce sturdier plastic bags designed for multiple uses, and that consumers would be willing to pay for this privilege. The charge should be increased over time, the study says, so that pricing remains uncomfortable and people do not grow accustomed to low prices. It estimates that all EU citizens would use an average of only 39 bags per year by 2020, an 80 percent decline. It is unclear what the impact of such changes would be on the plastic bag producers and their employees.

Neither does the study indicate what the impact of a potential consumer backlash to such a ban might be. The study mentions the possibility of "general dissatisfaction" if the change is not properly communicated, but little else. Consumers may feel differently, as previous EU environmental regulations have proven.

Perhaps the most controversial EU environmental directive was the 2009 decision to phase out most incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient options by 2012. The regulation has been proceeding successfully on a technical level, but it has met with strong resistance from consumers. Many of them prefer the warmer light of incandescent bulbs, or worry about mercury poisoning from the more-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. There have also been documented cases of bulb hoarding in Germany, where sales of incandescent bulbs rose 150 percent in 2009 over 2008.

It's hard to say if consumers would have similar feelings about plastic bags. But at the very least, it's something for the Commission to consider for the "further study," that it told SPIEGEL the issue needs.

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