But as 2011 comes to a close, it's time to look back at a year which worldwide might well be styled the year of reckoning for plastic shopping bags. In Europe, as in the U.S., debate has raged on whether or not the use of non-degradable, non-compostable single-use plastic bags should be banned, and the use of 'green' bags made mandatory. Numerous cities in states like California and Oregon have already banned the use of these thin-walled PE bags; in Europe, the ban in Italy took effect on January 1, 2011. Bans are also in place in Mexico City, Rwanda, Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and three states/territories of Australia. Taxes and environmental levies have been imposed on the use of these bags in a host of other countries.
What, exactly is the fuss all about?
Looking at Europe, the average EU citizen consumes approximately 500 plastic carrier bags, every year and most of them are used only once. These bags are perceived as a major and highly visible source of litter. In landfill, they may take up to 1000 years to degrade, and, while incineration is a perfectly good solution, too many bags never make it into the collection system. As European Commissioner for Environment Janez Potočnik said: "Fifty years ago, the single-use plastic bag was almost unheard of - now we use them for a few minutes and they pollute our environment for decades."
Moreover, the ubiquitous bags are made from a non-renewable fossil-based source: oil. Predictably, the German association for plastic packaging explains that problem is not the bags themselves, but the consumers who use them. According to this association "a German citizen uses 65 plastic carrier bags annually, weighing an average of 15 grams each. In total, this amounts to a total of 975 grams (a little more than 2 lb) of polyethylene, manufactured from nearly the same amount of oil. This is about as much oil used for the manufacturing of just 1 liter of petrol. With an average fuel consumption of 7.5 liters per 100 kilometers this corresponds to a driven distance of 15 kilometers." What is needed, according to this association, is for these bags to be clearly labeled, to encourage consumers to use them again and again.
Moreover, earlier this year, a UK Environmental Agency report found that single-use polyethylene grocery bags have a lower carbon footprint than alternative paper or reusable bags in most usage scenarios. "Paper, heavyweight plastic and cotton bags all use more resources and energy in their production. A key issue, however, is how many times bags are reused. The reuse of conventional HDPE and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping and/or as bin-liners is pivotal to their environmental performance and reuse as bin liners produces greater benefits than recycling bags".
Processers manufacturing PE plastic bags everywhere throughout the continent - except for Italy - heaved great sighs of relief. Yet are they perhaps not being just a tad shortsighted?
Bring on the green bags
In Italy, they can't understand what the problem is. This country put the legal framework for banning fossil-based plastic shopping bags in place in 2007. A campaign was launched to educate the public before the full-fledged ban took effect. Under the Italian regulations, moreover, organic waste is permitted to include compostable plastic bags, considerably broadening the end-of-life options of these bags. Also, the government demanded guarantees from the raw materials suppliers that the materials needed for producing the new compostable bags would be available. The bioplastics manufacturers in the country were more than prepared to do so.
Novamont, a leading Italian manufacturer of bioplastics made from renewable agricultural materials, notes that the chemical industry lobbied strongly against the ban even after its implementation, but that it has now come to recognize that the new technology also offers opportunities. Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily more eco-friendly than other plastics. But for certain applications, they are the best solution. "The shopping bag market is the biggest market for biopolymers", says Stefano Facco, Novamont's New Business Development Director. "Compostable bags are an effective solution for optimizing the recovery of organic waste with a reduction of impurities. Their use increases the sensitiveness of citizens toward environmentally sustainable models."
Now, almost a year later, surveys have shown that over 83% of Italians would oppose the reintroduction of traditional bags. "What is more", says Facco, "this little ban has had really big effects. In Italy, investments in biobased plastics this year alone have soared. We announced a joint venture with ENI to restructure a big chemical plant formerly used for oil by-products into a bio-based chemical complex in Porto Torres (Sardinia, Italy. The project consists of seven new plants - an integrated production chain from vegetable oil to bio-plastics - to be completed within the next six years, and a research center devoted to biochemistry that will be operative in the next quarter.) Cereplast is building a new plant near Perugia. And DSM and Roquette announced plans to open a commercial scale bio-based succinic acid plant in 2012, in Torino."
In Italy, government and industry have cooperated to push through innovations, both in products and in production processes, within a larger framework that views 'green' as an opportunity for the local economy. Today, in the midst of a paralyzing financial and economic crisis, it's a rare sector that can boast this kind of success.