From 20-billion bags a year to a total ban.
In one Urbino supermarket a customer is loading groceries into a cardboard box supplied by the manager. In others the clients are using bags they brought along or buying special biodegradable plastic bag to haul home the evening’s purchases.
While these scenes wouldn’t draw notice in the United States, the sight of shoppers leaving a store without traditional plastic bags is nothing less than revolutionary in Italy.
This nation may be hailed for its careful preservation of the innumerable art treasures found in its cities, but it also has long been panned for a laissez faire attitude toward the environment. Even as its continental neighbors became greener and instituted various taxes and regulations against plastic bags, Italy held out. By 2006 its appetite for the bags had grown to 20 billion a year – one-fifth the continent’s total.
“And we don’t really reuse them,” said Danilo Alessandroni, Vice President of the group “Legambiente le Cesane (Environment League of the Cesane)” in Urbino. “We don’t recycle them. We leave them in the environment.”
So when Italy in 2007 passed a decreto (the Italian word for decree or law) banning the bags nationwide, it made headlines across Europe. Suddenly Italy, the environmental laggard, had jumped to the head of the class by becoming the first nation on the continent to vote for a total ban.
But few were surprised the move ignited a six-year battle. Italians like to say nothing happens quickly in their country. The story of the bag ban is a case in point.
Talks began to enact a decree in 2006, and a formal decree was initiated in 2007 to stop all consumption of plastic bags by January 1, 2011.
But that transition was delayed until January 25, 2012 by court contests, protests from bag manufacturers, and because that initial decree somehow “vanished” in Parliament. The resulting decree specified the kinds of bags that would be banned – but left out penalties.
The next hurdle came from outside Italy. The European Union (EU) Commission, which must approve all decrees passed by member nations, nonetheless received the decree and started the 90-day review process, but court battles with the United Kingdom (UK) delayed EU approval by another 90 days. The UK was strongly against Italy passing the decree.
“[The UK says] it’s not the plastic bag that’s dangerous,” Alessandroni said. “They claim it is the misuse that is dangerous for the environment.”
Complicating things further, farmers protested the decree because they did not want part of their corn harvest to be turned into making plastic bag alternatives.
Meanwhile, penalties were added to the decree while awaiting EU approval. By January 1, 2014, violators of Italy’s decree will be fined anywhere from €2,500 to €25,000 euros (about $3,260 to $32,593).
But Italian grocery stores, such as the nation-wide CONAD supermarket chain, were not betting against the decree, and have already transitioned away from plastic bags. Biodegradable plastic bags typically sell for 10 cents, while the cloth bags go for 1- to 2 euros, depending on size.
“It’s been three or four years since we changed from the plastic bags,” said Gianni Fargnoli, manager of one of Urbino’s CONAD supermarkets. “There’s reusable bags and even cloth bags. We as a store limit to three to four types of bags that we buy and offer to customers. Even if it’s not as convenient, we do have different options available.”
It is common for shoppers to use their own cloth bag instead of the biodegradable plastic bags, but they sometimes forget to bring them.
“If I do forget my cloth bag, I’ll use the bags from the store and maybe recycle them or put them away to reuse in the future,” said University of Urbino student Rachele Salerno, 21.
Fargnoli acknowledged that the biodegradable plastic tends to break easier. However, customers seem to not really notice any major differences between the old and new bags.
“I don’t use them again, and I put them in the plastic recycling trash can,” said Claudio Rossi, 51, while shopping at the Urbino Saturday market. “I also bring my own cloth bag, and have done so since the other bags were outlawed.”
While grocery stores seem to have embraced this new decree, the weekly markets – rolling caravans of vendors selling everything from shoes to cheese and meats – have yet to totally convert.
“We are more than happy that at least in the big supermarkets they have stopped using the plastic bags – that’s a big step forward,” Alessandroni said. “But, in the market in Urbino, you can see proof that this hasn’t stopped. People still use plastic bags, and we really haven’t solved the problem.”
Market vendors buy the bags from a “man with a cart of bags” who makes the rounds in the morning before the market opens. Even if the vendors are aware of the decree, the temptation to use plastic bags still exists.
“I give my customers white transparent plastic bags,” said Omar Islam Sayeam, a clothes and watch vendor at the Urbino Saturday market. “I really like paper bags, but they are expensive, so I don’t really get them.”
Yet some vendors at the Saturday market have made the transition to using biodegradable plastic. Carlo DiBella, 54, offers his customers at his clothes booth recyclable, biodegradable plastic bags, which he buys from a mass seller that he trusts.
“We are very, very careful about the environment and pay attention to our recycling, glass with glass, paper with paper,” DiBella said. “Since there aren’t really many clean spaces, we as a company and family pay attention to the environment.”
It could be a sign Italy is finally joining the environmental revolution.