Czechs still making big contribution to Europe’s plastic bag waste pile

Photo: Tomáš Adamec

Waste from plastic bags has been a growing problem in recent decades. After years of isolated action in curbing plastic bag use on the part of some EU member states, the European Commission has moved to ensure more effective action. According to a proposed directive, that is to be put to a vote in the European and national parliaments, by 2015 EU member states will have to chose between three methods of reducing the waste from bags: charges, national reduction targets, or an outright ban.

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
In 1989 Czechs happily embraced the plastic bag along with the other trappings of a consumer society and used them with a vengeance, to the great anguish of fashion gurus. The first negative reviews on one of the most common symbols of consumerism appeared two decades later when then environment minister Martin Bursík of the Green party launched a war on plastic bags and even drafted a bill which would force retailers to charge for them. While the legislation was never approved the ministry’s information campaign on the adverse affects of plastic waste did mark the beginning of a new trend – a more responsible attitude on the part of retailers and greater awareness on the part of consumers. One by one, the country’s biggest supermarket chains started charging for plastic bags, with the last straggler –the hypermarket chain Globus – announcing a change of policy as of next year. Even so, Czech consumers are still making a big contribution to the European pile of plastic waste in the form of the thin see-though plastic bags which are still being handed out free of charge. While in Denmark, where these plastic bags are taxed, consumers use approximately 4 bags per person a year in countries like Poland and Slovakia the rough estimate is 466 bags per person annually. I asked Vojtěch Kotecký of the environmental group Duha, what the figure for the Czech Republic is.

Vojtěch Kotecký,  photo: Ondřej Vrtiška
“Unfortunately there are no statistics for the Czech Republic so we have nothing more than estimates to go on but it must be billions of plastic bags every year and it seems that we are not yet one of the really progressive countries (like the Scandinavian states) that were able to deal with the problem much more effectively than we have. The problem in the Czech Republic is that everything that has happened in this country was voluntary action by retailers rather than direct legislation. The government has not taken any serious action in this respect yet and unfortunately the European Commission’s proposal is rather weak because it does not say what actions governments should take or say how significant a reduction in plastic bag use they should achieve –it just says that within two years governments must take some action to bring about a reduction of plastic bag waste.”

While critics of the directive feel it gives EU member states too much leeway by allowing them to chose their own instruments and set their own targets, Civic Democrat MEP Milan Cabrnoch told Czech Radio he would only raise his hand in favour of a directive that gave EU member states the right of choice and did not impose strict conditions. The Czech Environment Ministry is reluctant to say which of the proposed measures of cutting plastic bag waste would be most suitable for this country, merely highlighting the need for a solution that would protect the environment and, at the same time, not burden consumers. While many shy away from the idea of an outright ban on plastic bags as being counterproductive Vojtěch Kotecký argues that –with the right approach –bans do work.

Photo: CTK
“In some countries it worked. It worked in Italy and I think it could work in the Czech Republic as well. The problem is how you go about it – whether you simply impose a ban or whether you work with retailers to help them offer their customers a better solution. I think people who shop in Czech supermarkets would be happy to get much more durable and stronger items to wrap their purchases in than the thin and unreliable bags that they usually receive from retailers. “