European Parliament agrees waste prevention law

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have today (28 April) passed the ‘first binding measures to reduce waste generation’, after they formally adopted an agreement with the European Council to introduce a cap on plastic bag use.

The draft amendment to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was first proposed by the EC in 2013 to curb the use of lightweight plastic bags (thinner than 50 microns) that are less reusable than thicker models and degenerate more quickly, thus causing more environmental damage to the environment, and water and aquatic ecosystems in particular.

More than 81 per cent of MEPs voted in support of the legislation last year and over 92 per cent of Europeans agreed that measures should be taken to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bags, after it was revealed that EU citizens reportedly used 198 carrier bags each in 2010.

However, the proposed changes faced opposition from a number of countries, including the UK, which believe that member states should be left to deal with plastic waste on a national level (such as by introducing charges for bags), as opposed to being mandated to do so by the European Parliament.

Choice of measures

As such, following trialogue talks in November last year, it was informally agreed that member states would be able to choose between two policy options:

  • to take measures to ensure that average yearly consumption does not exceed 90 lightweight bags per citizen by 2019 and 40 by 2025; or
  • to take measures to ensure that, by 2018, they are not handed to shoppers free of charge.

It is these two proposals that have now been formally agreed by the European Parliament, along with the requirement for member states to submit annual reports on the consumption of plastic carrier bags (a methodology for which is expected to be released next year).

MEPs also agreed that the European Commission (EC) should assess the impact of ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic carrier bags on the environment and – within 24 months of the entry into force of the above legislation – present a report to the European Parliament and the European Council, including, if appropriate, a set of measures to limit their consumption or to reduce any harmful impacts.

The more preventive action we take today, the less remedial action we could need to take tomorrow’

Speaking after the final vote, Green MEP Margrete Auken (pictured, right), who has been steering the legislation through parliament, said: “This legislation will create a genuine win-win situation. We’re talking about an immense environmental problem [as] billions of plastic bags end up directly in nature as untreated waste. It damages nature, harms fish, birds, and we have to get to grips with this.”

European Parliament agrees waste prevention law

She added that the legislation could save up to €740 million per annum.

European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella also welcomed the legislation, stating: “Once the amendment to the packaging waste directive is adopted, member states will have tools available to take action. The first step states must take is that they must choose from instruments available to reduce use of plastic carrier bags. This directive addresses a major problem at source. The more preventive action we take today, the less remedial action we could need to take tomorrow.”

He added: “Through this new directive we can demonstrate that the EU can effectively respond to matters of concern.”

David Newman, Managing Director of the Biobased and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), the newly-established trade body created to strengthen the voice of the circular bioeconomy sector in the UK, stated that the directive would be "good for UK business", as it will "lead to a reduction in imports of cheap plastics made in the Far East" and help boost sales of long-life and compostable bags.

He added: "A quick survey of our members shows general approval of the directive, but, above all, an increase in investments foreseen in compostable plastics production as they expect demand to rise. This is great news for the bioeconomy in general and great news for UK industry, which can convert quickly to making products with a defined standard and a certain end of life.”

Biofuel caps voted through

As well as the plastic bag reduction law, the European Parliament also agreed to a new cap on the amount of biofuels produced from crop-based sources.

In February of this year, the European Commission’s Environment Committee (ENVI) approved a draft law to reduce the amount of biofuel grown from crops to ensure that food crops are not displaced by biofuel crops.

Current legislation requires EU member states to ensure that renewable energy accounts for at least 10 per cent of energy consumption in transport by 2020, but to reduce competition with food crops, and lessen the negative environmental impacts of biofuel use, MEPs suggested introducing a limit on the amount of ‘first generation’ crop-based biofuels that can be used for transport purposes.

Politicians agreed today to bring in legislation that:

  • limits first-generation biofuels used for energy consumption in transport to seven per cent by 2020;
  • requires member states to set a national target, no later than 18 months after the EU directive enters into force, for the share of advanced biofuels in total transport consumption;
  • requires fuel suppliers to report to EU member states and the EC the estimated level of greenhouse gas emissions caused by indirect land use change (ILUC) (when more land needs to be cleared to grow food crops because farmland is being used to grow biofuel crops); and
  • requires the EC to report and publish data on ILUC-related emissions and detail the scope for including ILUC emission figures in the existing sustainability criteria.

It is hoped that the law will also boost the use of advanced (or ‘second generation’), biofuels, sourced from seaweed or certain types of waste, such as used vegetable oils that are no longer fit for human consumption.

‘The biofuels bubble has burst’

The rapporteur for the law, MEP Nils Torvalds, said that although he was pleased that parliament had “succeeded in getting a very technical, technological and ideological file to go ahead”, he said that ENVI had had “much higher goals”, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and technological progress.

He added that the legislation had also been delayed by the “systemic problem of the blocking minority in council, which sometimes develops into a dictatorship of the minority, with member states who are afraid of the future”, noting: “If Europe doesn't move forward, it will be left behind.”

The cap has been welcomed by a range of commentators, however, with Robbie Blake, Friends of the Earth Europe's Biofuels Campaigner, saying: “Let no one be in doubt, the biofuels bubble has burst. These fuels do more harm than good for people, the environment and the climate.

“The EU's long-awaited move to put the brakes on biofuels is a clear signal to the rest of the world that this is a false solution to the climate crisis. This must spark the end of burning food for fuel.”

Faustine Defossez, Senior Policy Officer for Agriculture and Bioenergy at the European Environmental Bureau, also commented, saying: “Today’s vote sends an important signal: first generation biofuels are not needed in the future of our transport policy. But plenty more remains to be done: despite today’s landmark decision, severe negative impacts of certain kinds of bioenergy use remain unsolved. It is the whole EU bioenergy policy that needs to be well thought through and handled with care in the future to ensure that it delivers for people, climate and the environment.”

Find out more about the plastic bag and biofuel laws.

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