Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Italy becomes first EU country to ban plastic bags

The Guardian, Rome

The window of New Market on Via Antonio Cantore in the Prati quarter of Rome was crammed with the delicacies that go into a traditional Italian New Year’s Eve feast — lentils, zamponi (stuffed pig’s trotters) and hyper-calorific cotechino sausages from Modena.

Friday’s cenone (literally, “big dinner”) ushered in not just a change of the year, but a revolution for shoppers and store owners. As of yesterday, Italy’s hundreds of thousands of retailers are now banned from giving their customers plastic bags.

“I’m ready,” a supermarket owner, Marcello Picchioni, said confidently. “We form part of a group, an association of supermarkets and they’ve ordered biodegradable plastic bags for us. They’ll arrive in the new year.”

Just down the street at Barbantini, a chic stationery outlet, it was another story.

“What do we know about the new regulations?” Claudio Borzi asked, turning up his palms and hunching his shoulders. “As usual in Italy, we’ve been told absolutely nothing.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government is thought to be the first in the EU to outlaw the use of polythene bags (although Ireland imposed a 0.15 euro (US$0.20) levy on them in 2002 that drastically cut their use). And as Italians are plastic bag addicts — they use a fifth of all the bags distributed in the EU — the ban will make a very real difference.

Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo who forced through the change against resistance from industry lobbyists, called it “a step forward of fundamental importance in the fight against pollution, making all of us more responsible for reuse and recycling.”

It was not until Dec. 22 that it became clear that she would -succeed in bringing in the ban and the government has so far not circulated information to the people who will be responsible for implementing it.

The co-owner of Barbantini, Fabrizio Ferrari, said he -understood producers were forbidden from manufacturing plastic bags from yesterday, but retailers could sell them until stocks ran out.

“I think we’ll know more after we get the first fine,” his assistant said.

According to Italian environmental organization Legambiente, ending the use of plastic bags in Italy will save 180,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Non-biodegradable bags spoil beaches, block drains and foul sluice gates. The UN environment program estimates they account for the deaths of 100,000 marine mammals a year.

Environmental campaigners regard biodegradable bags as the least desirable alternative.

“We’re going for paper bags, though we only need small ones,” said Cristina Bertozzini at the perfumery that bears her surname, one of Rome’s oldest, founded in 1913. “But the problem with paper bags is that the bottom can fall out, especially if it gets wet. I think we’re going to have to get used to taking our shopping home in shopping bags.”

That is not only the solution most favored by environmentalists, but also the one which, to their delight, proved most popular in a recent survey. In a poll organized by Legambiente, 20,000 shoppers in 80 towns were asked what they would do if they could not buy plastic bags. More than 73 percent opted for reusable ones, against 16 percent who chose “bio-plastic” bags and 10 percent paper sacks.

One objection to shopping bags in style-conscious Italy is that they are not modish. But the Italians are working on that. Outside Profumidea, a shop on Piazza Mazzini selling scents, handbags and luggage, Anna Maria Ruggieri looked approvingly at two pull-along shopping trolleys made of fake animal hide.

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