Plastic bags

Position paper

Background

Plastic bag
© Photo Fraunhofer UMSICHT

This plastic bag was found and removed together with other waste by colleagues from Fraunhofer UMSICHT near the institute during a waste collecting initiative of the city Oberhausen called »Super-Sauber-Oberhausen«.

Statistically, 45 plastic bags per capita were used in Germany in 2016 [1]. In a city like Oberhausen with 210 000 citizens this amounts to a total of almost 10 million bags per year. While some of the plastic bags are reused several times after their initial use, for example as a means of transport or as a garbage bag, most of them directly end up in the mixed waste bin or, as it should be, are fed into recycling via the »yellow bin«, the German lightweight packaging collecting system.

The amount of plastic litter in the oceans is still increasing – in total it is estimated to be 27-66,7 million tonnes [2] – and more and more pictures of starved birds and beached whales with their stomachs full of plastics fragments and bags instead of food are going around the world [3]. That is why plastics, especially in the form of plastic bags and packag-ing, are increasingly becoming a subject of harsh criticism. For many years, plastic bags have been one of the top 10 litter items found during beach clean-ups [4].

Several initiatives, like plastic-free shops [5] or plastic-free cities [6], aim at completely abandoning these products. In April 2016 the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature conservation, Construction and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) and the Trade Association of Germany (HDE) signed a voluntary agreement to reduce the use of plastic bags by half in the next ten years. Therein, the participating companies commit themselves to charge their customers a reasonable fee for plastic bags from 1 July 2016 at the latest. .

But how should the subject be evaluated from a scientific perspective? Experts from Fraunhofer UMSICHT have compiled the following facts and assessments.

 

[1] Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (2017): Ein Drittel weniger Kunststofftüten in Deutschland. Last time checked: 2017, June 28

[2] Eunomia (2016): Plastics in the Marine Environment. Bristol, United Kingdom  

[3] Spiegel Online (2017): Müll im Meer: Wal hatte 30 Plastiktüten im Magen. Last time checked: 2017, April 28

[4] Ocean Conservancy (2016): 30th Anniversary International Coastal Cleanup: Annual Report. Washington DC  

[5] Utopia (2016): Verpackungsfreier Supermarkt: einkaufen ohne Verpackung. Last time checked: 2017, April 28

[6] IBP - Interkulturelle Begegnungsprojekte e.V. (2015): Unplastic Billerback. Last time checked: 2017, April 28

Position of Fraunhofer UMSICHT

  1. Similar to the criticized material polyvinyl chloride (PVC) the »plastic bag« has become a highly symbolic icon in environmental debates. This makes an unbiased discussion based on facts difficult.
  2. Life cycle assessments (LCA) do not show specific advantages of paper and cotton bags over bags made from conventional plastics or bio-plastics. A multiple use of bags has positive effects on LCA results [7].
  3. The utilization of biodegradable materials as alternative sources for plastic bags needs further investigation. However,, even a slower degradation – albeit lasting several years – would already improve the situation compared to the extremely long lasting standard plastics bags (mostly made out of the polyolefines PE or PP).
  4. Plastic bags made of polyethylene (PE) with catalytic additives which enhance oxidative fragmentation (so called »oxo-degradables«) are to be strictly rejected. They purposefully produce microplastics which can have severe consequences in the low trophic levels (plankton, bivalves, worms etc.) of the food chain (please see our position paper on microplastics for further information) [8].
  5. A general ban on plastic bags is rather to be rejected. Instead, strategies should be pursued promoting careful and responsible use.  

All detailed evaluations of Fraunhofer UMSICHT regarding this topic can be found within the position paper »Plastic bags«.

 

[7] Environment Agency (2011): Evidence. Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrierbags: a review of the bags available in 2006. Report: SC030148. Bristol: Environment Agency (Environment Agency science report)

[8] Fraunhofer-Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology (2015): Fraunhofer UMSICHT takes Position »Micro Plastics«.

Plastic bag consumption – examples from around the world

The per capita consumption of plastic bags varies from country to country. In 2010 Bulgaria led the EU member states with 421 bags, followed by the Czech Republic (297), Greece (269), Romania (252) and Italy (204). Germany already was at the lower end of the range with 71 bags per capita in 2010. According to most recent figures, it has reduced its consumption further down to 45 bags per capita per year [7]. Less plastic bags were only used in Luxemburg (20) and Ireland (18) – see the following figure. The low value for Ireland can be explained by a former introduction of a fee for plastic bags.

Some non-European countries have already imposed complete bans. In Bangladesh plastic bags were first banned in the capital city of Dhaka in 2001 and subsequently prohibited throughout the country. The reason was that they were partly made responsible for blocking wastewater systems leading to floodings in 1988 and 1998. In Morocco, plastic bags have been banned completely since 1 July 2016. The country previously ranked second behind the USA with an annual consumption of 900 bags per capita and 26 billion in total.

Ultrathin plastic bags are prohibited in China, Kenia, Rwanda and South Africa. In the city of San Francisco plastic bags also got banned. Furthermore, in China plastic bags are charged for, as well as in Washington D. C. and Los Angeles. Some further countries also consider implementing laws because farm animals have increasingly started to feed on plastic bags and as a consequence have suffered from health problems.


Sources: [UBA-2013], [Doyle-2013], [SZ-2016a], [DLF-2016], [EPI-2014].