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EU Plastic Bag Debate Highlights a Wider Global Problem 470

Posted by Soulskill
from the that's-why-i-use-disposable-cloth-bags dept.
jones_supa writes "An EU citizen uses around 200 plastic bags per year. That's too much, says the EU. But wasting plastic bags is not just a European problem. Countries around the world are struggling with the issue, and it especially affects growing economies such as Asia. Some Southeast Asian countries don't even have the proper infrastructure in place to dispose of the bags properly. The problems for the environment are many. Plastic bags usually take several hundred years until they decay, thereby filling landfills, while animals often mistake the plastic for food and choke to death. Additionally they are a major cause of seaborne pollution, which is a serious hazard for marine life. This autumn, EU started ambitious plans which aim to reduce usage 80% by 2017. Some countries have already applied measures to slow plastic bag use: England has added a 5p charge to previously free bags, and in Ireland the government has already imposed a tax of 22 euro cents ($0.29) per plastic bag. The EU Environment Commissioner, Janez Potonik, said, 'We're taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem.'"
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EU Plastic Bag Debate Highlights a Wider Global Problem

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  • England (Score:5, Informative)

    by biodata (1981610) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:16AM (#45537079)
    In England the government has said that a 5p charge will come in 2015 AFTER THE NEXT ELECTION. Too early to count chickens.
    • Re:England (Score:5, Informative)

      by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:36AM (#45537233) Journal
      In Wales, the charge has been in place for over a year.
      • by slim (1652)

        Yes, and everybody got used to it really quickly.

        Even though it's a negligible charge, people tend to react by carrying a couple of spare carrier bags with them in case they go to a shop.

        • Re:England (Score:4, Informative)

          by gutnor (872759) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @10:26AM (#45537751)

          It is not only the price but also the fact that there is no longer a pile of bag available. You need to ask for the right amount of bags, and it gets recorded on your receipt. Cashier will also very often forget to even ask you the question so you end up with your stuff pilling and no bag to pack them until you get the attention of the cashier.

          It is all the little annoyance combined that make it work. It seems to work much less in Marc and Spenser Food Only where somebody is packing your stuff for you.

    • Re:England (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Vanderhoth (1582661) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:38AM (#45537261)
      They tried that here in Nova Scotia, at one point. Home Depot, Superstore and Walmart were charging 5 cents for each plastic bag. Sobey's, a competing grocery store with Superstore, opted not to charge for bags. Superstore lost BIG because people saw charging for bags as a cash grab, passing the buck, and making a profit, for something that's been free for a long time off to the consumer. People started going to Sobey's in droves, I remember not even being able to get in a store at one point. It wasn't long before Superstore stopped charging for bags. Not long after that so did Home Depot. I speculate because Kent, Home Depot's competition, didn't charge. Warlmart gave up shortly there after when Costco moved into town.

      What Sobey's did do right was start selling cheap reusable nylon and canvas bags, which they would replace if ever the bag was damaged. I paid around $12 for six bags and some how ended up with ten somewhere along the way. I've had three replaced over the last four years with no issues. People still use plastic bags, I get them every now and then to clean the cat box and for kitchen catchers, but I see a lot more people using the reusable bags instead.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bagorange (1531625)
        That anecdote shows why the market is not the infallible benificence that libertard fundies claim.
        It is obvious to anyone with an education that hundreds of millions of plastic bags that will never rot is a bad thing.
        You cannot wait for companies who are interested only in their own profits. They will not change.
    • Seems to low a charge to make a major difference in England but the levy is pretty effective here in Ireland. Reusable bags are widely available from around a euro upwards. There are paper bags available too in many shops. I generally use a rucksack. The plastic carriers supplied by tesco's are not very strong anyway with a high chance of breakage just going from the checkout to the Car Park.

      Irelands pretty good at recycling, you basically pay to get your rubbish collected so it pays to be more environment

    • We have about 5 reusable bags.
      We usually remember them when we go shopping, and I actually do prefer them over plastic, because they can carry more, have a more comfortable handle,

      However what I can see as a way to get better use is doing the following.

      1. Modify the shopping carts to have a good place to store them while shopping. I tend to stuff it on the bottom, however if I have a big item (aka Cat litter) I have to do a lot of shifting around. Having the spot available is also a note that the store ac

      • Re:United States (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ArsenneLupin (766289) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @11:11AM (#45538297)

        3. Generic bags. Lets not use them as as an advertising platform. you want bags that you can use tastefully at any store.

        I never had any problem pulling out a bag of a competing supermarket out of my pocket at checkout. Or a bag with father Christmas on it in the middle of the summer. Who the hell cares? Grow a skin!

  • by schwit1 (797399) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:19AM (#45537095)

    This gets fixed by developing a better bag. Better means comparable cost and strength, with handles and environmentally safe.

    Jumping straight away to a tax makes it look like nothing more than a money grab.

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:24AM (#45537133)

      There already are better bags, they're offered for sale alongside the cheap nasty ones. Either more durable plastic, or foil-lined bags for freezer items, or a range of light-to-heavy-duty fabric bags.

      • by TWiTfan (2887093) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:35AM (#45537229)

        Yes, except I'm not going to use a bunch of fabric bags that have to buy myself, remember to bring to the store, and that have to be washed after every visit to the store. A much better and more practical idea would be a modest surcharge (5 cents/bag or whatever) which you then get back when you turn them in for recycling (which would be required in every store, not just at recycling centers). We already do this with plastic bottles in several states in the U.S. and, the way I see it, everybody wins.

        • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:38AM (#45537267) Journal

          remember to bring to the store

          This is the big one. It's quite common to pop into a shop on the way home, and unless you're driving you won't have a bag with you. I'd love it if shops would give you a bag for a deposit and return the deposit when you returned the bag.

          • by Sockatume (732728)

            That would be a good one, and would work well in parallel with a switch to reusable bags.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Sockatume (732728)

          1) You don't have to wash them after ever visit, unless you're buying, like, unwrapped raw chicken in which case you've got bigger problems
          2) You don't have to remember to bring them to the store so long as you have the presence of mind to know that you're going to the store, or to keep one in a handy place for unexpected runs.

          • 1) You don't have to wash them after ever visit, unless you're buying, like, unwrapped raw chicken in which case you've got bigger problems

            You might want to rethink that statement.
            http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/sns-green-bacteria-in-shopping-bags,0,4837500.story [chicagotribune.com]

            • by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @10:12AM (#45537571)

              I'm familiar with the ACC's study. It's bacteriophobic bunk, to be frank, from a campaign group that's opposed to any reduction in plastic bag use. The main issue is that it conflates the presence of scary bacteria with the presence of even-potentially-harmful levels of those pathogens. It belongs in the same trashcan as those chemophobic studies that find trace amounts of scary chemicals in factory-farmed potatoes or whateverthefuck.

        • by devent (1627873)

          In Germany we have no free bags for at least 5 or 10 years (feels like forever) and there is no difficulties in bringing your own bags. Mostly it's a concious decision to go and buy groceries. Then you can just bring 2 bags from your home. And since when you have to wash every time a fabric bag? Everything you buy is packaged. If you not put like raw fruits in your bag the bag will not get dirty.

        • by camperdave (969942) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @11:24AM (#45538439) Journal
          I've found a solution to having to wash the reusable bags. I just line them with some of the convenient plastic bags from the grocery store.
      • by TWX (665546)
        Well, in my experience, owning a few of those heavy duty canvas bags, they're not particularly straightforward to sanitize. We washed and dried one and it shrunk drastically. I don't know about you, but given the vectors for disease that uncooked foodstuffs provide, I don't want to have un-launderable bags that I have to pay any significant money for.
        • by Sockatume (732728)

          Mine's some sort of synthetic, I just machine wash it. I don't know why you would use canvas because like you say it's almost unwashable.

    • by EasyTarget (43516)

      .. makes it look like nothing more than a money grab.

      No; it's a rent.
      So long as you do not charge for bags that are strong when sold but soon decay once exposed to free air and UV then this is not a land grab, since the market (which only cares about polluting when it is expensive) will rapidly move to the least damaging option and your 'grab' will shrink to nothing.

      Of course. This is actually a land grab, since the market will maximize profit anyway and once we are all used to paying for bags the charge will remain, The only way to prevent this would be legi

    • This gets fixed by developing a better bag. Better means comparable cost and strength, with handles and environmentally safe.

      Jumping straight away to a tax makes it look like nothing more than a money grab.

      Maybe - but it works in the short term. I lived in Ireland for a few years, the 22c was enough to make me (and most people) take my own bags shopping so far fewer bags were used. Now I'm back in free bag country and it feels weird and unnecessary to be given a load of new bags every time I go shopping.

      I agree though that even an 80% reduction doesn't solve the problem, an environmentally safe bag would be the best solution.

  • by Apotekaren (904220) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:20AM (#45537107)

    Ok, so plastic bags in the grocery stores here in Finland have cost somewhere between 15-30 Euro cents for, well forever. I could get a proper cloth grocery bag to reuse, or buy paper bags instead, but I choose not to. Why? I use those plastic bags for my trash!

    So if I did go cloth or, heaven forbid, paper, I'd still have to buy plastic bags to put in my trash cans. It doesn't matter if I buy them separately or on a roll, I'm going to keep buying those plastic bags until I come up with a better way to get rid of my trash.

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:26AM (#45537149)

      A roll of specially-designed bin-liners costs the equivalent of about five Euro cents per bag here, and you can get them in biodegradable varieties. You're wasting your money by using shopping bags.

      • by berashith (222128)

        so why isnt someone attaching handles to these bin liners? Cheaper, same size...

        I use my grocery bags for trash also, as I dont like having large trash cans holding large amounts of trash. The bags are free in the states, and I buy a box of large trash bags about once every 5-7 years i think. The cloth bags seem like a good idea, but it is just more stuff to keep track of, especially when you have to leave the bags at the front desk then ask for them back when you are ready to leave. Then they are a potent

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          1) My bin liners do come with handles. Really convenient for tying them off. If I was stuck and for some reason I needed a plastic bag for groceries I would certainly take one. (I use them for carrying the occasional inconveniently-shaped object anyway.)

          2) You don't have to use "large trash cans holding large amounts of trash", I have bins of sizes from about 1 metre tall (kitchen nonrecyclables) to about 30cm (bathroom trash) and I can buy bin liners that neatly fit all of them.

          3) Why on Earth do you have

      • But saving time and bother. Some plastic bags here are some kind of biodegradable plastic(or they offer them), and when I throw them they'll end up in the municipal incinerator anyway. Doesn't matter.

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          I don't see how it saves time and bother. You go to the store once, and you have a roll of bags for about 3 months. Versus having to go shopping to be able to throw out your garbage.

          • It's rare that the trash I produce takes up more space than the groceries I've carried home. Right now I have 4 or 5 plastic bags from previous trips waiting neatly rolled up under my sink. For when I take out the next filled bag. I've never run out of trash bags, and never bought a roll specifically for that use.

            My recommendation; ban flimsy bags, and make only the big (40L is almost standard here) strong ones out of biodegradable materials.

            • by Sockatume (732728)

              So, it's exactly as convenient as actually owning a roll of bags. What would the problem be if you suddenly had to switch over to ready-made bags? Do you actually use up all the bags you bring in?

    • In Australia plastic bags are generally gratis. The cost of them is just factored into prices whether you use them or not... So, rather than buying bin liners I use the bags from my shopping. I wish more stores would use the biodegradable variety - then I'd have the best of both worlds!
  • I started using re-usable bags and a backpack when I started having to hike to the nearest supermarket. You can fit more in them, you don't even notice the backpack, and the handles don't turn into cheese wire after thirty seconds with a moderate load. Mine even have a folding fibreboard base so you can fill them more easily. Once you get past the initial investment - and small policy nudges should take care of that - the convenience makes the switch worthwhile all on its own.

    Car owners: do you use plastic

    • I'd like a crate system! You could probably even return them at the door as you walk in. The problem with re-usable cloth bags is that you have the carry the bastards around while you shop, and I find that annoying.
      • by Sockatume (732728)

        If I'm remembering rightly, they even had special trolleys that the crates fitted right into. Everything went straight into the crate as you shopped-and-scanned. You bought the crate outright, so it was yours, you just took it out to the car with the shopping in there and walked it right into the house. I still see them now and then when someone on my street is moving.

        Of course the self-scanning thing is kind of the trick here.

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:21AM (#45537119) Homepage Journal

    Waste is a massive problem. And it has a trivial solution. Mandate that all packaging be recyclable, and marked for recycling. If it's not marked for recycling, prohibit sale and require the packages to be destroyed or returned to the country of origin. Anything not recyclable must be compostable and clearly marked as such. Finally, all plastic bags must be rapidly UV-degrading and compostable, full stop. That outright solves the problem of plastic bag forests. You don't need to charge a premium, which does absolutely nothing to mitigate the problem of the bags which ARE thrown away, and only an idiot would believe that the majority of the population will take good care of plastic sacks because they cost them 5p a piece. Requiring a more expensive bag will have the effect of making the bags more expensive anyway; some retailers will roll the cost into the cost of their products, and some of them will charge the customer. Either way, the free market is completely capable of solving this problem with the proper guidance, which is NOT a fee.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Wouldn't the greater cost of the biodegradable bags also be passed onto the consumers in the form of higher prices? Anyway, the idea isn't that people would "take good care" of sacks they would otherwise throw out; the idea is that people would stop taking them in the first place.

      • In industries with low competition yes. That hardly describes supermarkets.

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          My point is that whatever passing-on-the-cost objection applies (or does not apply) to a bag surcharge also applies (or not) to his solution.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Wouldn't the greater cost of the biodegradable bags also be passed onto the consumers in the form of higher prices?

        As I stated, some retailers would charge for the bags, and some would roll the costs into their prices. Who cares? Either way, you solve the bag problem.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jamlad (3436419)

      You don't need to charge a premium, which does absolutely nothing to mitigate the problem of the bags which ARE thrown away, and only an idiot would believe that the majority of the population will take good care of plastic sacks because they cost them 5p a piece.

      That's just it. It does work, and it did work, in Ireland. I remember when the fee came into place and the number of plastic bag littler noticeably dropped, because it wasn't the big supermarkets that was causing all the waste. It was the local corner shop, where people would go to pickup a pint of milk, or the paper and some smokes and forget to bring a bag with them. All of sudden having to pay 15%-25% extra on top of your pint of milk (I forget how much it was relatively) and most people just carried it

      • by pjt33 (739471)

        I don't have mod points, but I found this interesting. Here in Spain they charge for bags in the chain supermarkets, but in the "Chinese shops" (budget independent supermarkets mainly run by Chinese immigrants) and take-away shops they give you bags for free. A cheap bag in the chain supermarkets is only 2c, and the impression I get is that most people just pay it, although they do also sell reusable bags for 1€.

    • by Errol backfiring (1280012) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:32AM (#45537211) Journal
      You are right to say compostable. Merely biodegradable usually means that there are a lot of harmful chemicals after the degrading process.
    • Having biodegradable plastic bags is a great option. I believe there are corn based materials that fit this requirement. Making more packaging biodegradable (particularly for non-food stuffs, like toys or tools) is also a good idea. But simply reducing packaging and plastic bag use is an even better option. Charging an amount per bag encourages people to reuse stronger bags. And they will if they are hit with a surcharge every time they shop. Some jurisdictions have even banned the distribution (by shops)
  • The first half of the following seems to be the important part:

    First, Member States are required to adopt measures to reduce the consumption of plastic carrier bags with a thickness below 50 microns, as these are less frequently reused than thicker ones, and often end up as litter. Second, these measures may include the use of economic instruments, such as charges, national reduction targets, and marketing restrictions (subject to the internal market rules of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU).

  • Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Benjamin: Yes, sir.

    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

    Benjamin: Yes, I am.

    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

    Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
  • by Inf0phreak (627499) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:25AM (#45537147)
    This discussion needs a soundtrack and we're so lucky that the perfect one already exists. I'm of course talking about one of the most "what do you mean it's not awesome?" pieces of music ever made, Canvas Bags by Tim Minchin [youtube.com].
  • by TWX (665546) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:28AM (#45537183)
    From the summary, "Plastic bags usually take several hundred years until they decay..."

    This is technically incorrect. Plastic bags have not existed for even fifty years, let alone a hundred or several hundred. Based on the best research and scientific modeling, materials scientists expect that plastic bags will remain for hundreds of years before they degrade, but that is an educated conjecture, not an observed fact.

    Even tests done in ways to simulate time are by definition, simulations. They may well be accurate, but there have been times where scientific conjectures were later discovered to be either incorrect or else in need of modification to correct inaccuracies. This isn't to downplay the problems with the bags, but excessive assumptions only lead to someone else being able to counter one's arguments.
    • by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:33AM (#45537217)

      The decay rate of polyethylene is on sturdier ground than the decay rate of modern concretes and steels, so I don't think there's much cause for pathological scepticism. Unless you're unduly concerned that your roof is about to fall in on your head.

      • by TWX (665546)
        Given where my career and interests have taken me, I'm regularly in engineering spaces in buildings to see and interact with the concrete and steel and wood of buildings. I have a good feel for how building materials up to a hundred years old behaves.
        • by Sockatume (732728)

          If we're going to play that game, I'm a materials chemist. Trust me, you can expect more surprises from concretes and steels - amazingly clever mixtures - over fifty years than you can from a simple polyethylene film over a hundred.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My wife is a research scientist specializing in additive packages for polyethylene. Raw polyethylene, particularly as film, degrades at a startling rate. Anti-oxidants and UV protectors are required to give the stuff a useful lifetime. When the additive package "runs out", the film disintegrates. "Remain for hundreds of years" is the purest of bullshit. The only place where that might be true is in a landfill, where that is *a desired property*. A landfill is *not* a compost heap, and the people who design

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        The only place where that might be true is in a landfill, where that is *a desired property*. A landfill is *not* a compost heap, and the people who design them don't *want* the contents to degrade.

        Stability is desirable, but the addition of waste is not, especially for whoever is paying for the landfill. Anything that reduces waste volume is a plus, and enhanced biodegradability in non-landfill polyethylene is a definite perk.

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      From the summary, "Plastic bags usually take several hundred years until they decay..." This is technically incorrect.

      Let me try:
      Tellurium-128 [wikipedia.org] has a half life of 2.2(3)e+24 years.
      Tellurium 128 has not existed for 2e+10 years [wikipedia.org], let alone 1e+24 or a couple of 1e+24 years. Based on the best research and scientific modeling, nuclear scientists expect that any certain amount of Tellurium-128 will be halved after 2.2(3)e+24 years, but that is an educated conjecture, not an observed fact. etc

  • In some countries, vendors "mark" clients with the bags. If you are a tough negotiator for the lowest price, you get a different colour plastic bag than if you are a western tourist who pays the first sum asked.
  • by amn108 (1231606) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @09:55AM (#45537407)

    Five years ago I was on a beach outside Malaga, Spain, about to take a swim in the sea. Diving under water I suddenly saw hundreds of more or less colored plastic bags floating around at different depths, like jellyfish. The sea was apparently full with those, at least along the coastline, to a degree. Some sort of tide bringing these I guess. Needless to say, the swimming experience was not particularly appealing suddenly and was cut short. It was disgusting. I am not really sure how to fix this problem today, but a price tag on each bag and a penalty for disposing of trash in inappropriate locations in general seem like a start to me.

  • It's a question of customer service. If you make me pay for a bag, by removing the free alternatives and selling your own, then I'll avoid your store if I can. You know why? Any large supermarket recycles or throws about tons of empty cardboard boxes every month. You could stack them by the door, let me take them conveniently from where I have to pack my purchase into a trolley / basket, and they'd get re-used (much better than recycling). There are some shops that do this (shout-out to Trago Mills).
    • by ledow (319597)

      Damn lameness filter decided there was something it didn't like. Edited ten times to get rid of symbols and abbreviations, still flipped out.

      So I changed it from Plain Old Text to HTML and that's the result up there, stripped of all my nice line returns...

      Again, good customer service... the lameness filter is easily bypassed and in doing so makes my post look like shit.

  • by abigsmurf (919188) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @10:01AM (#45537471)
    200 plastic bags is under a kilo of plastic, compared to the food packaging (especially for micromeals) it's negligable. In terms of carbon footprint, it's impact is tiny and barely any better than re-usable bags.
    Rather than using it to raise funds, how about mandating supermarkets to use biodegradable/compostable materials instead? Better yet, make supermarkets do "litter patrol" like they do in England with McDonalds.
  • I clearly remember a science project where some teenager bred bacteria that could break down plastic bags in about three weeks. It won somebody's science fair project and everything.
  • I'm actually OK with being charged for the bags if the money collected is allocated to a system that actually addresses a direct bag created issue such as upgrading recycling facilities to better handle them so they don't just go into landfills. What I am against in a general sin tax on bags that goes and funds whatever it is the government wants to fund with the money collected.
  • Follow through (Score:4, Insightful)

    by onyxruby (118189) <onyxrubyNO@SPAMcomcast.net> on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @10:41AM (#45537929)

    The problem with well intended programs is that most of them have a lack of follow through in their chain of events.

    I recall when early in my career I worked in a fair size office building that had a cafeteria on the premises. In the cafeteria you were presented with an assortments of recycling options where you could recycle everything from organic waste to making sure that green glass was separated from brown.

    When I worked the first shift I would watch as everyone dutifully separated everything just so to make sure they were being good for the environment. I was then transferred to second shift after a while at which point I noticed that every single evening the janitor took every single bin and dumped them all into the same garbage dolly.

    The same thing happens with many recycling programs where the materials are simply shipped to Africa or China. They are then disassembled by hand as they value the money more than the computer, often by small kids and certainly without any kind of environmental controls. In order to put an end to e-waste you really have to start forcing in country recycling programs where the materials are completely broken down.

  • by ehud42 (314607) on Wednesday November 27, 2013 @11:15AM (#45538357) Homepage

    In Winnipeg (Canada), charging for bags - or even simply flat out not supplying them (MEC), has resulted in such a drop in small, convenient shopping bags that we (re)used for garbage bags, that we now have to explicitly buy garbage bags (for small waste bins like in the bathrooms).

    Also, yard waste used to be dropped off at certain depots - and large plastic bags were king. Now, it is collected at the curb side - but only if in PAPER yard waste bags. We had stocked up on the large garbage bags for yard waste before the switch, and I fear we now have a lifetime supply of paint smocks, emergency rain coats, vapour barrier material, etc....

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