EU Ban on Plastic Bags Making Impact

Release of microplastics reduced as consumers turn to eco alternatives
By Ilya Rzhevskiy
Ilya Rzhevskiy
Ilya Rzhevskiy
August 31, 2016Updated: August 31, 2016

Shoppers in European countries like Germany or U.K. are getting fewer plastic bags due to a EU directive passed in April 2015 that is now slowly being implemented across all member states.

Under the EU members must reduce their average plastic bag consumption from 200 bags per person in 2015 to 90 bags per person in 2019 and 40 bags per person by 2025.

They must also ensure all stories charge shoppers a fee for each plastic bag.

While the in comparison to Europe, in the US the average plastic bags per person per year is at around 308.

Germany’s second largest supermarket chain REWE Group (with more than 3000 supermarket stores in Germany) is phasing out plastic bags in all its stores by this coming fall and offering paper, cotton or jute bags, as well as cardboard cartons, as alternatives.

“As a company with the clear focus on sustainability, we are going to use only environmentally friendly raw materials and their products, which will also help to sink CO2 emissions. Therefore we are on the way to avoiding, reducing and finally banning the use of plastic bags,” said Frank Hensel, who is the CEO of REWE International AG in a press statement.

Due to this initiative, about 700 tons of plastic will be saved per year in REWE supermarkets, and will help to sink CO2 emissions by 50%.

The ban could create business opportunities for new companies in developing durable non-plastic bags and grocery containers, as the demand is on the rise.

Other German supermarket also look set to end their use of plastic bags.

Plastic bag use is also down in the U.K. In 2014, the UK’s seven biggest retailers handed out 7.6 billion bags. That number fell dramatically to 0.6 billion bags from Oct 2015 to April 2016, a six month period.

In comparison to Europe, in the US the average plastic bags per person per year is at around 308.

Neither the U.S. nor Canada have nationwide laws or directives to ban the use of plastic bags, though there are local initiatives started in some states, counties or municipalities.

In Canada, at the moment 6 municipalities have plastic bag bans in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec.

In Toronto, however, a ban on single-use plastic bags was cancelled in 2012 shortly after it was implemented after the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA) filed suit would hurt small businesses, particularly convenience stores.

“Torontonians don’t normally drop into convenience stores with reusable bags. If merchants are prohibited from providing plastic bags, shoppers will be less likely to make purchases and that will mean Toronto’s small, family-run convenience stores will be hit hardest,” said Dave Bryans who is the CEO of OCSA to CBC News.

The U.K., which has a successful ban in place, only made the very largest retailers participate and exempted businesses with fewer than 250 full-time equivalent employees.

In the United States, more than 100 counties and municipalities have banned the use of plastic bags. California became the first state to pass a law banning plastic bags at large retail stores in 2014. However, shortly after, the ban was put on hold by a referendum sponsored by plastic bags industry located outside the state.

In November, California ballot will include another referendum that would ban single-use carryout plastic bags.

North Carolina and Hawaii have state wide plastic bag bans already.

Bans are growing because bags are a large source of plastic in the environment and don’t biodegrade, taking approximately 1000 years to decompose.

The plastic waste that is not recycled accumulates on in the ocean and soil like a never fading dust.

Worldwatch Institute says that only 9 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the U.S. and only 26 percent are recycled in the EU.

Bags also emits toxic chemicals like phthalates, BPA, flame retardants when they break down while simultaneously absorbing dangerous toxins like the pesticides DDT and PCB.

According to Greenpeace, “At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish. The scale of contamination of the marine environment by plastic debris is vast. It is found floating in all the world’s oceans, everywhere from polar regions to the equator.”

Small plastic particles, called microplastics, can easily break off from plastic bags and are harmful to fish and animals. Eventually, they are also consumed by humans, in the form of seafood products or drinking water.

According to the study by Belgian Ghent University, an average European shellfish consumer is exposed to 11,000 microplastics per year. The effects of microplastics on human health are still unknown and broadly debated, but the common sense advice is to minimize consumption of unnatural and indigestible food element that contain toxins.

“Microplastics can be so small that they flow right through wastewater treatment plants. And because microplastics can absorb chemicals, they may even prevent treatment plants from removing dangerous chemicals from the water,” writes Epoch Times.

Unlike many environmental pollutants, consumers can easily have an overwhelming impact on this issue.

Paper bags are an easy alternative, as are reusable plastic bags, though these eventually break down.

Cotton bags are a more natural alternative and last for many years.