Too many disposable shopping bags

Federal Environment Agency upholds call for fee on shopping bags

apples in plastic bagsClick to enlarge
Plastic bags like these can be found along the coasts and in the oceans.
Source: Francesca Schellhaas / photocase

The Federal Environment Agency is recommending a further reduction in the use of disposable plastic carrier bags and an expansion of the fee on shopping bags which is already in place in the retail food trade. This will help to use resources efficiently, avoid waste and to reduce the input of waste to the oceans and seas. Current data shows that both small and large disposable plastic bags and their residues can be found along all the drift lines of the North and Baltic Seas. Vice-President Thomas Holzmann of the Federal Environment Agency said, “Disposable bags are short-lived products. Even when used two or three times, they do not harmonise well with efforts to prevent waste and principles of efficient resource use. Moreover, they can be found along the coasts and in the oceans. There is a lot which speaks in favour of a compulsory fee on disposable plastic bags."

The EU Commission therefore adopted a proposal to amend the Packaging Directive in November 2013. It will drastically reduce the use of lightweight plastic carrier bags with a wall thickness of below 50 microns. The Federal Environment Agency is hosting a round of talks today on the topic of disposable plastic carrier bags with manufacturers, public authorities and environmental and consumer associations about whether this restriction is effective and what measures will be required in Germany. Current data from the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (packaging market research institution) estimates a per capita use of 76 disposable carrier bags per year in Germany. The EU average is thought to be 198 per person. In addition, Germans use 39 t-shirts bags for deli counter products per person and year.

Germany has a highly developed waste management system. Packaging waste is collected separately, and there is no disposal of untreated waste to landfills. Plastic bags often nevertheless still find their way into the environment. Their remnants can be found in oceans and on coasts all over the world. This also concerns the Baltic Sea and North Sea, as proven by first-ever counts taken by the marine protection authorities of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Data from 2008 - 2012 reports that the drift line of the North Sea had an average of 1.5 disposable plastic carrier bags and three t-shirt bags (small, thin-walled plastic bags) for every one hundred metres of coastline. Analyses done on the Mediterranean Sea also confirm that plastic residue is the dominant form of waste along the drift lines of Europe’s seas. These fragments are mistaken for food by marine animals and block the animals‘ stomachs, which can lead to death by starvation or internal injuries. Final decomposition of the material can take centuries. In the meantime, additives like plasticisers are entering the marine environment. This is in stark contrast to the very short service life of the bags.

Disposable carrier bags made of biodegradable plastics are just as unfriendly to the environment. Thomas Holzmann said, “We do not see biodegradable plastic bags as an alternative to conventional disposable bags, for they are also short-lived products and do not help to prevent waste. The material does not yet offer any ecological advantage over plastics that are petroleum-based.” Biodegradable plastics can impair the recycling of conventional plastics. Composting installations usually separate plastics as an interfering substance. The composting process in many industrial installations is often not long enough to decompose biodegradable plastics. In addition, they do not solve the problem of marine litter. There is no evidence to suggest that decomposition is speedier in the cold and mostly cold conditions in the ocean.

The Federal Environment Agency is recommending the introduction of an obligatory fee for disposable plastic carrier bags. This fee for all shopping bags which is already common in the food retail trade can be extended to the entire retail sector. Resources are saved and waste is prevented with reusable bags and when available disposable bags are reused many times. Bags made of recycled plastics are the preferred type among disposable carrier bags, such as those with the Blue Angel. These bags are made of at least 80 per cent recycled plastic. The best way to dispose of them is in the yellow bag or bin.

Further information

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) is investigating input sources and quantities of plastic packaging as well as other waste and their impact on the marine environment. This includes coherent monitoring of pollution through waste in Germany’s seas and the development of statistical methods of tracking waste. The ecological effects of marine waste will also be analysed and evaluated in detail. The UBA is acting as central coordinator of the development of regional action plans to reduce waste inputs into the Northeast Atlantic and Baltic Sea as part of ongoing work under the regional treaty on the protection of these marine areas.

Umweltbundesamt Headquarters

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau
Germany