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bioplasticsMAGAZINE_1106

Opinion

Opinion ‘Bagislation‘ in Europe Italy‘s bag ban challenges the (bio-) plastics industry Analysed by Harald Kaeb narocon InnovationConsulting Berlin, Germany Fig. 1: The negative consequences of littering triggered and heated up ‘bagislation‘ Italy does it, Spain has planned it, the European Commission is considering it: the banning of non-biodegradable single-use carrier bags has become a ‘battlefield‘ of product legislation in Europe. For the first time ever legal regulation could exert a huge impact on the market and the development of technology for bioplastics in Europe. For manufacturers of biodegradable plastic resin Italy became the ‘promised land‘ and a magic blueprint for so-called ‘bagislation’ in Europe and abroad. However, the battlefield is peppered with strong incumbents, diverse interests, sustainability constraints, waste management obligations and, last but not least, a complex political and legal landscape. Italy‘s ban triggered a public debate and further action: EU authorities put it under scrutiny and they now are evaluating how to reduce the consumption of, and littering by, bags. In the past a bag ban was considered non-compliant with EU Directives - from a legal point nothing has changed since then. But as the political perception most likely has changed, will Italy‘s bag ban now be allowed? What are the arguments? Which ones are really convincing and practicable? I have been analysing this market and the relevant policies for years. This article provides a first assessment of the situation with focus on motives and actions. The author also points out the risks that the protagonists need to be aware of. Dealing with littering issues Most likely there is no other plastic product which is under so much (legal) pressure as the plastic bag today. A vigorous discussion about littering and over-consumption has led to measures aimed at a far-reaching reduction of single-use bags around the globe. From Bangladesh to China, from Tanzania to the Philippines – it seems that every country on this planet has introduced bans or regulations, or is at least discussing the subject. Google reveals 1.2 million results (searching ‘carrier bag ban’) and three million pictures (searching ‘bag littering’) - all within one second. The photograph of a turtle with a remnant of blue plastic film in its mouth has become the accusatory symbol against plastic bags. The damage caused by littering heated up the debate and gave it a spin towards biodegradability as a proposed solution. This used to be a forbidden ‘No-Go-Area’ for many good reasons: If the bioplastics industry were to advertise in this way, it would not take long for studies to prove the opposite: biodegradable and compostable bags floating in the sea, eaten by animals, wrapped around branches on trees, piling up on the ground and NOT biodegrading. It would be a disaster. A great opportunity to fuel ‘anti-bioplastics’ PR campaigns and damaging the whole concept of biodegradable and compostable plastics. Whatever the plastic product and material type, littering is anti-social behaviour which must not be encouraged by “it just disappears!” adverts. Only oxo-additive producers and users go that way and they are failing to build a market in Europe. 28 bioplastics MAGAZINE [06/11] Vol. 6

Films|Flexibles|Bags Putting a price on carrier bags brings double benefits Most experts agree that the best way to fight littering is give a value to bags. The easiest way is to charge for them – no bags for free anymore! Many European food supermarkets charge for bags: A typical 50 µm (micron) loop handle PE bag is priced at 0.10 to 0.20 € (Bio-PE bags marketed at 0.15 to 0.25 €). Despite carrying a price of 0.20 to 0.40 € compostable plastic bags are successfully introduced in more and more EU markets where no bans are in place. Their market share reaches up to 25% in German or Austrian grocery stores. The concept of selling bags and keeping a high margin has become a strong trend in Europe. When adding a price the stores often switch from free-of-charge 15 to 25 µm thin-gauge PE bags to 40 to 50 µm bags. With a lot of benefits: the added weight prevents bags from blowing in the wind, the added performance (more kg loading capacity) turns the single-use bag into a reusable bag (used between 4 to 7 times, studies say). The number of bags per capita would drop from hundreds to a few dozen, or from more than two kilogrammes to less than one. This effect is a perfect contribution to the waste prevention goal which stands at the top of the EU waste hierarchy. Just by charging significantly for a bag the result is lower consumption and less littering. This concept is favoured by most of the food retailers. If it is objected to, then politicians are eager to enforce it: the Irish bag tax was a consequence of the objection of British retail stores to reducing the number of bags. The levy of 0.15 € per bag led to a 90% reduction. In the UK Prime Minister Cameron recently warned the British retail sector to reduce bags - or taxation will be applied. He was not pleased with the weak results of a voluntary retail commitment. It seems it is only a matter of time until all carrier bags in the European food retail sector will be charged. Retailers love money and avoiding taxes. National and EU bag policies In 2005 the French government banned single-use carrier bags with the exception of biodegradable and compostable bags. This first attempt at a legal ban was not targeting littering, France had no big issues with it. The idea of the ‘Grenelle de l‘Environnement’ was just to promote new outlets for feedstocks from French agriculture. Biodegradable and biobased bioplastics were regarded as an opportunity for French farmers and companies. Legislation was promoted despite the fact that there is little infrastructure for collecting bio-waste and composting in France. Whilst the European Commission (EC) blocked the enforcement of the French law the Italian one successfully came into force. u Fig 2: Lightweight bags blowing in the wind – they are much more of a litter problem than heavier ones (Photo: Kaeb) Fig. 3: Compostable bags conquer markets despite higher prices - even if ‘non-regulated’ (Photo: BASF) bioplastics MAGAZINE [06/11] Vol. 6 29

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