Single-use plastic carrier bags under the public scrutiny - again

Written by: RWW | Published:

Lightweight, reusable and recyclable, say supporters. Hazardous, costly and unnecessary, say detractors. The role of plastic bags is under closer scrutiny than ever before. David Burrows investigates.

In the UK, England and Scotland are to follow Wales and Northern Ireland’s lead with the introduction of a carrier bag tax. However, the coalition government has decided its levy will have an exemption for certain biodegradable bags. 

It’s a “catastrophic” move, according to the plastics recycling sector and Keep Britain Tidy.

Meanwhile, in Europe a group of members of the French National Assembly recently proposed banning oxo-biodegradable plastics, on the basis that they might pose a rise to health and the environment. 

Indeed, just recently the European Parliament encouraged the EU to ban “the most hazardous plastics and certain plastic bags [including oxo- and micro-biodegradable varieties] by 2020”, while the use of single-use plastic bags should be “phased out wherever possible”. 

The EU Directive on packaging waste should also be reviewed, said MEPs.

The issue is stimulating as much attention as, say, genetically modified foods. But while politicians wage war on plastic bags, where has this left the recycling sector? 

England’s “illogical” approach

Legislation to introduce a levy on plastic bags has been a long time coming in England, but it seems that the coalition could no longer ignore the stats coming from Northern Ireland and Wales where consumption has fallen. 

A 5p tax is planned for October 2015. This wasn’t a surprise. What has put everyone on the back foot is the plan to include “a new high standard” for biodegradable bags, which would then be exempt from the charge. 

Barry Turner is CEO at the Packaging and Films Association (PAFA). He maintains that the focus on plastic bags is at the expense of other, far more significant issues, such as food waste. 

Given the choice, he would not introduce a tax - especially not one in which there is an exemption for biodegradable bags that meets an, as yet undeveloped, standard. 

“Exemptions, if there are to be any, should be based on reinforcing reuse and recycling,” stresses Turner. “At a time when government is so keen to drive forward recycling it seems perverse that the present proposals could have the exact opposite effect and undermine plastic recycling and the front of store collection recycling points that have been established by many supermarkets.”

Turner told the Environmental Audit Committee much the same in a hearing before Christmas. 

He also highlighted the “ironic timing” of the exemption announcement that came “just after [the government] funded a project to enable the opening of the first plastic carrier bag recycling plant in the UK and set new and higher targets for plastic recycling”. 

Duncan Grierson is chief executive at PlasRecycle, the company that raised £10.7m from the likes of WRAP, the London Waste & Recycling Board and Foresight Environmental Fund to build the new facility. The site in Woolwich, South East London, will take up to 20,000 tonnes of materials a year.

Grierson says the tax won’t affect the supply of feedstock, with plenty of bags to go around, but the legislation will. 

“That the government is considering giving an exemption to the carrier bag levy for bio-degradable bags is not good news,” he says. “There is no way of efficiently removing these types of bags from the plastics waste stream and this contamination will render the recycled plastic worthless.”


Indeed, in a study commissioned by European Plastics Converters (EuPC), published in November, quantities of degradable plastic films as low as 2% were shown to cause “significant detrimental impacts” to the quality of plastics recyclates. 

Others are also concerned that an exemption could see biodegradable bags contaminating the plastic bags recycling stream. 

“The exemption risks causing more harm than good to recycling in England unless there is a good system that will allow them to be clearly identified and sorted,” argues Jakob Rindegren at the Environmental Services Association. 

“If the exemption is introduced however, there must be a robust definition of biodegradability, ideally following the EN 13432 European standard.”

Those in the oxo-biodegradable camp say the recycling sector is being too cautious. 

John James, Wells Plastics export manager, claims that the UK’s recycling industry needs to “stop working on hunches” and be “a bit more opened-minded” about the use of oxo-biodegradable plastic bags. 

“If I was a recycling company [I’d understand their worries] - the cleaner the material they get the better. [But] the research we have done with experts shows they shouldn’t have any fear [about accepting oxo-biodegradable] materials.”

Wells wants more collaboration between the recycling sector and oxo-biodegradable bag manufacturers. This would need to extend across Europe, however, with some pushing for bans on the materials. 

A group of members of the French National Assembly (the French lower house) have proposed a law to ban oxo-biodegradable plastics, at least temporarily while their risks to health and the environment are assessed. 

The group also said the plastics don’t qualify as biodegradable and that fine particles of plastic could enter the food chain.

The Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association has suggested the proposals are a “skilful lobbying attempt to take oxo-biodegradable plastics off the French market and leave the field clear for bio-based plastics which are not competitive with oxo-bio and have very limited usefulness. Lobbyists are trying to do the same in Italy and Spain, and risk making fools of the deputies in these three countries.”

Packaging Directive

But interest in carrier bags is much more widespread, with the introduction of an EU-wide reduction target being considered as part of the European Commission’s plans to cut carrier bag consumption “by up to 80%”. 

In 2010, an estimated 98.6bn plastic carrier bags were placed on the EU market, which amounts to every EU citizen using 198 per year. 

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik says the planned changes would introduce an “obligation” on member states to reduce the use of plastic bags, but they would be given “flexibility” in terms of the measures they use. These measures “may include economic instruments such as charges, national reduction targets and marketing restrictions”.

Central to the new proposals are amendments to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. 

Directive 94/62/EC was adopted in order to prevent or reduce the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment, but the commission wants the law to specifically address carrier bags given the “enormous environmental damage” they cause.

Turner at the PAFA isn’t happy with the idea. “Starting with a product that accounts for such a small part of the waste stream and separating this out for individual treatment is a nonsense,” he says. 

However, plastic bags do need to be valued. 

A spokeswoman for PlasticsEurope says it is “unfortunate” that plastics are often seen as a cheap and disposable material and that “we all need to understand that plastics are too valuable to waste”. 

New evidence, due to be published in Germany later this month, is expected to show that the public does value its single-use carrier bags - in a survey of 1,006 consumers 72% use the bags more than once and, of those, 85% are using them more than three times on average. 

In a letter to the environment secretary, Peter Davis, director general of the British Plastics Federation, highlighted the new research as well as the fact that Defra’s legislative proposal “barely mentions reuse”. 

 Single-use carrier bags are not, it seems, single-use after all. The debate continues. 


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