The provision of ultralight plastic bags for primary packaging or transport of bread, fruit and vegetables is prohibited in Portugal from June, but operational difficulties have led distribution companies to ask for the elimination of this ban.
The Portuguese Association of Distribution Companies (APED) say that it sent a proposal for the revocation of this ban, “in view of the absence of an alternative on the market to respond requirements, the lack of obligations of Portugal towards the European Union and the need to guarantee the harmonization of legal requirements and free competition in the community space", to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Action, at the end of December 2022.
The ban stems from a law, published in September 2019, on providing alternatives to the use of ultralight plastic bags and plastic trays at points of sale for bread, fruit and vegetables. Initially, the bill from the Os Verdes party (PEV), unanimously approved by parliament, provided for banning ultralight bags from June 2020, but the published diploma eventually had a start date of June 1st, 2023.
The proposed revoking by APED is based on three grounds: the functioning of the single market; food safety and prevention of food waste; biodegradable and compostable alternatives.
"Firstly, the European Union does not impose restrictions on the use of 'very light bags' that are necessary for hygiene reasons or made available as primary packaging for food products sold in bulk, taking into account aspects of food safety and prevention of food waste ", an APED spokesperson said.
Another reason for the revocation, according to the association, is the need to "safeguard the packaging of products at high risk of deterioration or that are very perishable", such as blueberries, and controlled atmosphere products, fruits and vegetables cut in store.
From this ban on selling bakery products, fruit and vegetables packaged in very light plastic bags, and in single-use plastic containers, the law makes an exception for plastic bags and packaging that are proven to be biodegradable and compostable, as long as they are not made available free of charge.
The destination of biodegradable plastic, instead of recycling, is composting centers (a biological process of organic recovery that promotes decomposition), which is why there are countries where, in the streets, next to the glass, paper and plastic recycling containers, there are brown recycling containers.
APED, regarding biodegradable and compostable alternatives, points out that community legislation provides for the obligation for very light plastic bags to be “compostable in industrial bio-waste treatment units only 24 months after the entry into force of the Community Regulation”.
"This period will be important to guarantee the qualification of the current infrastructure for the treatment of biowaste in the country. The European Commission does not recognize biodegradable plastics as an alternative to single-use plastics", clarified the association.
The "only balanced solution" is the anulling of the prohibitive article of the 2019 law, says APED, adding that it is "faithful to the constructive posture and openness to dialogue" and that, therefore, it also proposed an alternative wording of the article (4 77/2019), "if revocation is not possible”.
The purpose of banning ultralight bags in commerce is to contribute to discouraging the use of this type of packaging and to promote reusable alternatives among consumers, with the law providing for the application of administrative offenses to traders who do not comply with this ban.
The annual production and volume of plastic waste doubled between 2000 and 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), showing concern about the pollution of rivers and oceans and the carbon footprint, given the growth in the volume of plastic which outpaced economic growth by almost 40%.
A projection released in June 2022, indicated that the global production of plastic in 2060 will be almost triple the current one if measures are not taken to discourage its use, reminding the OECD that half of this production ends up in landfills and less than one fifth is recycled.
The covid-19 pandemic, in Portugal with the first cases in March 2020, and the consequent increased production of waste such as masks, gloves or food packaging, has aggravated the pollution of marine ecosystems with plastic, according to an alert, dated March 2022, by the United Nations Special Envoy for the Oceans.
An audit by the Court of Auditors (TdC), released in April, revealed that in 2020 Portugal failed to meet its targets for the production and management of urban plastic waste, with the pandemic contributing to this failure and contrasting with the performance of 2011 and subsequent years, when the objectives for the recovery and recycling of waste and plastic packaging were achieved, although less ambitious than the current ones.
In that same audit, the TdC warned of the financing model and costs of urban waste management systems, which "does not allow for the coverage of expenses with its collection and does not sufficiently encourage citizens to adopt good prevention and management practices of waste".
Months before the publication of the law banning ultralight bags, in June 2019, APED, heard in parliament by the Environment Commission's 'Plastic Waste' working group, already asked for more time to find alternatives to ultralight plastic bags. "You cannot abolish by decree and force companies to have such a radical change until more research is done and it is proven that the solutions are good and that they will not impact, in terms of price, the lives of consumers", warned the director general of APED, Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, at the time, highlighting the "difficulty of new alternative solutions" and calling for "rethinking" the deadline and providing "clarification on which alternatives" were intended by parliament.