plastic bag  headdress

The times they are a changin’.

“Sustainability is made of little changes to our lifestyle that don’t cost us anything and can save the planet,” said Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian Environmental Minister, as she confirmed that a ban on non-biodegradable, single-use plastic bags will take effect on 1 January 2011, for all of Italy. The plastics industry protests that the rules are not clear, that the abrupt transition will have negative repercussions on consumers, and that Italy has no reason to take the initiative as there is no ban at the European level. But their arguments seem weak in light of the fact that the ban, originally announced for January 2010, has already been delayed a year to give the industry time for transition…

Further arguments include the cost of biodegradable bags (4-5 times more), and the fact that biodegradable plastics cannot yet meet the technical specifications that the non-biodegradable plastics meet; read: the biodegradable bags rip even as consumers pack their purchases at the cash register. Perhaps any inadequacy of the single-use biodegradable bags will convince more Italians to reach for multi-use bags. In a survey last November, 73% of Italians reported that they would use alternatives to single-use, non-biodegradable plastic bags when shopping.

Italians use 25% of the disposable plastic bags produced annually in all of the European Union — 20 to 25 billion bags per year, depending on where you find the statistic. But in a culture notorious for considering stop signs as merely advisory, it remains to be seen how effective implementing social change from the top down can be. Critics note that the ban has no teeth: there are no provisions for fines at the national level, with sanctions being left to the locals. Turin, for example, will levy fines of 25 to 250 Euros (US$33 – $330) on businesses that do not comply.

It is difficult to imagine the ban taking effect in just one week. At most stores in Italy, there is no sign of a pending change. A popular grocery store chain, the Coop, is one of the few places where biodegradable bags are found. But Coop introduced biodegradable bags voluntarily already in 2005, and transitioned to eliminate the single-use, non-biodegradable bags completely starting in 2009. The concern calculates that this move has prevented 450 million disposable bags per year from entering circulation.