As result of the negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council, the Commission proposal has been significantly improved by laying down an obligation on Members States to achieve a sustained reduction in the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags. Importantly, for the first time in forty years of European waste legislation, we will have binding measures at EU level to reduce waste generation.

Targets or pricing

In particular, the text now requires Member States to choose between two obligations: either to adopt measures ensuring that the annual consumption level does not exceed, on average, 90 lightweight plastic carrier bags per person by the end of 2019, and not more than 40 lightweight plastic carrier bags per person by 2025; or alternatively, to ensure that, by the end of 2018, they are no longer provided free of charge at the point of sale of goods or products, unless equally effective instruments are applied.

Annual reporting on consumption

In order to assess the effectiveness of reduction measures the text introduces specific provisions on monitoring, requiring the Member States, as from 36 months after the entry into force of the legislation, to report annually on the annual consumption of plastic carrier bags according to a common methodology to be adopted by the Commission within 12 months after the entry into force of the legislation. This builds on existing reporting obligations. As such, the benefits in terms of having concrete tools that allow Member States to control the effectiveness of the measures taken far outweigh the extra administrative work.

Labelling of biodegradable and compostable plastic carrier bags

Furthermore, the obligation for the Commission to set specifications on labelling on biodegradable and compostable plastic carrier bags is an important means to avoid the misleading practices of false labelling of plastic carrier bags, particularly by so called “oxo-biodegradable” plastic carrier bags. “Oxo-biodegradable” plastic bags are based on a technology where an additive is added to conventional plastic material so that the plastic eventually fragments into micro-particles (normally within two to five years). It is marketed as a solution to littering, when in fact it increases the problem of littering by leading to environmental pollution with micro-plastics. Whether or not these micro-plastics are ultimately “biodegradable” as claimed by those offering this technology is highly controversial. The fact that the term “biodegradable” is currently applied to materials with extremely widely differing rates of bio-degradation has rendered the term meaningless. The adoption of clear specifications for a label of biodegradable and compostable bags not only clarifies the situation and ends misleading claims, but can also contribute to facilitate the separate collection of bio-waste with the help of truly biodegradable and compostable plastic bags.

Assessment of impacts of “oxo-degradable” plastic carrier bags on the environment

As a label alone only addresses misleading claims by “oxo-degradable” plastic carrier bags, but does not prevent the increase in pollution potentially brought about by this technology, the agreed text obliges the Commission to examine the impact of “oxo-degradable” plastic carrier bags on the environment and present a report to the European Parliament and the Council, including, if appropriate, a set of measures to limit their consumption or to reduce any harmful impacts within 24 months of the entry into force. As “oxo-degradable” plastic materials are especially used to produce plastic carrier bags, it is fully appropriate to ensure legally binding follow-up action in the context of amending the packaging directive with regard to plastic carrier bags, rather than defer this to uncertain follow-up to the Commission Green Paper on plastic waste.

Very lightweight plastic carrier bags

In order to be able to reduce the excessive consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags, it was necessary to distinguish them from very lightweight plastic carrier bags with a wall thickness below 15 microns which are required for hygiene purposes or provided as primary packaging for loose food when this helps to prevent food wastage. As Member States may be allowed to exempt very lightweight plastic carrier bags from the measures to achieve the reduction targets or the pricing, their consumption may remain at the same levels or even increase. However, as their consumption is very high and the littering problem particularly relevant for these very lightweight plastic carrier bags, the final agreement introduced an obligation on the Commission to assess the life cycle impacts of possibilities to reduce the consumption of these bags, and present a legislative proposal, if appropriate, within 24 months.

CEN standard for home composting

Finally, the final agreement stipulates that the Commission should ask CEN to develop a standard for home-compostable packaging.

In summary, the final agreement is a major improvement in all aspects as compared to the Commission proposal. And unlike the Commission proposal, it is based on the preferred option identified in the Commission’s own impact assessment. Your rapporteur therefore recommends agreeing to the common position without any amendments.