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Italy becomes first EU country to ban plastic bags

From January 1, 2011, Italy's thousands of shops and stores were no longer allowed to provide customers with plastic bags—polyethylene (PE) bags to be precise. Cloth, paper, and biodegradable plastic shopping bags are OK, and several retail businesses intend to offer them.

The ban, which was opposed by industry groups, was to have been phased in gradually starting in 2006 when it was first approved in the national legislature. Only on December 22, 2010 did it become clear that the bill's chief sponsor, Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian environmental minister, could put the bill into full effect on January 1.

During the first few days of January, retailers said they had received no official information. Several of them were quoted in news media saying they learned what they knew from newspaper and TV news reports. Some of the retailers believed that they could sell the PE bags until their supplies ran out. Italian retailers have traditionally charged for the bags, generally about €0.05 each.

Despite having to pay for them, Italians have been avid consumers of plastic bags, buying about 20 billion annually, which amounts to about 25% of all plastic shopping bags distributed in the European Union. Most of the bags consumed in the EU are imported from producers in countries outside Europe.

The Italian environmental association Legambiente told The Daily Telegraph (UK) that ending the use of plastic shopping bags will save 180,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Legambiente recently surveyed 20,000 shoppers in 80 Italian towns to find out what they would do if they could not buy plastic bags. More than 73% of respondents said they would choose reusable bags; 16% would opt for biomaterial bags; and 10% would take paper bags.. —Rob Neilley

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