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European trade groups arm themselves against possible bag ban

Bans on thin plastic shopping bags have been appearing throughout the world, usually enacted on a local or regional basis.  But the European Commission is looking hard at such a ban for all of Europe and using the results of a recently closed survey to justify its decision. Some plastics trade groups now claim the survey was rigged by anti-plastic lobbyists.

Bans on thin plastic shopping bags have been appearing throughout the world, usually enacted on a local or regional basis.  But the European Commission is looking hard at such a ban for all of Europe and using the results of a recently closed survey to justify its decision. Some plastics trade groups now claim the survey was rigged by anti-plastic lobbyists.

Feedback from the survey, which was available online and ran from May 17 - August 9, 2011, was overwhelmingly in favor of a bag ban, but trade group officials say the odds were heavily stacked against them and their member companies. This week the German association of plastics packaging (IK; Bad Homburg, Germany) harshly criticized the EU commission's survey. "It was not only incompetent in content and misleading, but also has not reached the European consumer, since it has only been available in an English version. Therefore, it was mostly lobbying organizations using the survey portal for their own purposes. Because of all this, the result of the survey cannot be considered to be a reflection of the general opinion of the European consumer," was the conclusion of the association, which represents more than 300 plastics packaging processors and claims to be the largest association within the plastics industry in Europe.

The German group also argues that, no matter the problems with these bags in some regions, in Germany disposal is efficient. "We don't have a littering problem with carrier bags," states Ulf Kelterborn, general director of the IK. "The bags neither pollute the environment, nor do they kill animals, like it has been claimed time and again." Kelterborn and his group wager they stand good odds in any legal battle against such a ban, should it be necessary.

(Ed. Note: The writer lives in Germany and plastic bags most definitely are not a litter problem. Cigarette butts, yes, and the amount of dog poop on the sidewalks in Berlin is a huge problem for your shoes if you're not careful, but neither have to do with plastics and both are further examples of inconsiderate consumers, not product deficiencies.)

The IK and other packaging groups across Europe make the case that there already is a law to control plastic bag trash and all other packaging refuse--the European packaging directive, which obliges all member states to adhere to corresponding collection and recycling quotas.

In related news a report published in June which analyzed official EU data on packaging showed that over the past 11 years the amount of packaging waste going to final disposal in the EU-15 member states has fallen by 43%. Higher recycling levels and other forms of packaging waste recovery are largely the reasons, according to EUROPEN, the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment (Brussels). In 2008 in the EU 27 member states just over 17 million tonnes of packaging were sent for final disposal.

The analysis of data from 1998 to 2008 by EUROPEN also shows that in EU-15 growth in packaging waste is clearly decoupling from growth in GDP. In the 11 year period studied, despite an ageing population and a trend throughout Europe towards smaller households (all of which led to the purchase of a greater number of packaged goods) the amount of packaging placed on the market (excluding wood packaging) rose by only 10% and the amount of packaging waste disposed of (also excluding wood) actually fell by 43%. For the purposes of packaging waste, "disposal" generally means that the material was either put in landfill or burned without energy recovery. Wood is excluded from the GDP decoupling comparison because official reporting on packaging made from this material was optional until 2003 and since then reports from member states on wood packaging have shown inconsistencies, according to EUROPEN. 

Commenting on the findings in the report, EUROPEN managing director Julian Carroll said, "The data supports our view that the 1994 Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste is clearly one of the most successful pieces of EU environmental legislation, something in which all participants can take pride. This is particularly true for consumers who, across the EU, are increasingly accepting the sorting of packaging in their homes for recycling as a routine activity."

The EU Directive set a 2008 recycling target of 55% to be reached by 12 member states with the remainder including the newer member states to reach the same target between 2011 and 2015.  By 2008 three of the remainder had passed the 55% target and most others were approaching or already beyond a 50% recycling rate. 

However, another recent report, Flexible Packaging In The UK Municipal Waste Stream 2011, reveled that fully 80% of flexible packaging waste is the U.K. was landfilled in 2010. That report was prepared by Envicura, the environmental consultancy of plastic packaging consultancy PCI. The study also revealed that the key driver behind the U.K.'s improved recycling rates is export, with 37% of packaging waste volume now being sent to countries such as India and China.

Plastic bags account for around 90% of flexible waste recycling, with 95% of that going abroad. 

 Packaging is accountable for around 20% of municipal waste. Flexible packaging makes up approximately 13% of packaging waste, says Envicura, with flexible packaging about 3% of total municipal waste. Commenting on the report, author Steve Hillam said, "Despite the small proportion of the municipal waste stream accounted for by flexible packaging, so much of it is landfilled that it demonstrates a real need for new materials and new waste management methods."

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