Biodegradable bags, time for clarity


Press and social media attention these days is focused on the controversy of biodegradable bags intended for fruits and vegetables, as well as seafood, deli and pharmacy products. Let’s try to shed some light on the subject.

Plastic bags, European rules

The European directive on ‘
reduction in the use of plastic bags
made of lightweight material‘ aims to ‘significantlydecreasethe use of plastic bags made of lightweight material‘ with a view to reducing the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment. (1)

Plastic bags are distinguished into ‘lightweight material‘-thickness of less than 50 microns (like classic grocery bags)-and ‘ultralight material’ (< 15 microns), ‘required for hygiene purposes or provided as primary packaging for bulk food.’ (2)

Member states must take ‘the necessary measures to achieve in their territory a sustained reduction in the use of plastic bags made of lightweight material.’ To this end, they can resort to two options:

– Implement appropriate means to reduce their use, on an annual basis (not to exceed 90 bags per capita by the end of 2019, 40 by the end of 2025), (3) or

– Ensure that ‘by December 31, 2018, plastic bags made of lightweight material are not provided free of charge at the point of sale of goods or products, unless other means of equal effectiveness are implemented.’ (4)

However, plastic bags made of ultralight material may be excluded from the above objectives and instruments. (5)

Plastic bags, the rules in Italy

Italy was the first country in the EU to ban the use of shoppers, the traditional lightweight plastic shopping bags, in 2011. Thus causing a significant reduction in plastic consumption to produce bags in a few years (-55%, from 200 thousand to 90 thousand tons/year). (6)

The so-called Mezzogiorno Decree Law (7) permanently banned the marketing of plastic bags made of lightweight material. Not even thicker ones that are used and reusable as packaging for transporting goods (food and non-food).

The plastic bags
may not be distributed free of charge
and for this purpose the sales price per individual unit must be shown on the purchase receipt or invoice for the goods or products transported through them.

(Law 123/17, Article 9-bis)

Plastic bags made of ultralight material are also subject to mandatory consumer payment, effective Jan. 1, 2018. The Italian legislature has moved in this direction-along with the French legislature-in advance of European rules. Since the current directive, as noted above, even allows ultralight bags to be excluded from programs to reduce the use of plastic packaging.

Biodegradable bags, instructions for use.

Organic bags-as required by law-must be certified as biodegradable and compostable. (8) As well as suitable for food contact and made from renewable raw material. (9)

Public establishments are required to charge for biodegradable bags and record the relevant item on sales receipts. Otherwise risking penalties of 2,500 to 25,000 euros, up to 100,000 in the case of large quantities.

Moreover, the seller can charge a symbolic price for organic bags (e.g., €0.01, one cent per bag), when even below cost, without incurring any penalty or restriction of any kind. (10)

Reuse of biodegradable bags is theoretically possible, the Ministry of Economic Development has clarified. (11) And yet large-scale retail establishments are certainly entitled to prevent it, as part of their own self-control systems. Not out of a stubbornness to cash pennies on organic bags, but to prevent microbiological contamination. (12)

Instead, the most logical and correct reuse of the bags is to accommodate organic waste destined for wet waste. Taking care to peel off the adhesive paper label used to record the price of goods, which is in fact useful to affix to the margin of the top flap of the organic envelopes (to avoid puncturing them later).

Eco-logic and ecology in the Mediterranean Sea

The consumption of ultralight material bags in Italy is currently estimated at 9-10 billion units. Bag prices recorded in supermarkets vary between 0.01 and 0.03 euros. The impact of this law on the pockets of consumers can thus be estimated at 195 million euros, going not to the treasury but to the industries producing the relevant polymers and packaging. (14)

From a consumer perspective, the annual cost of organic bags per household can range from 4 to 12 euros. (15) However, which is matched by savings on the purchase of organic waste bags, whose costs are far higher than the biodegradable bags now mandated by law.

Italy has taken a step forward, and for once there is perhaps more to rejoice than to polemicize. Recalling that the Bel Paese boasts some 7,500 km of coastline and that plastic bags account for at least 3.5 percent of the waste on Mediterranean beaches. As found in the largest monitoring campaign ever carried out – on 105 beaches in 8 countries, between 2014 and 2017 – under the coordination of Legambiente. (16)

25 plastic bags per 100 meters of beach were surveyed by volunteers as the average level of marine pollution in Mediterranean Europe. If the average on Italian beaches is lower – 15 plastic bags per 100 m of beaches – it is probably due to the ban on shoppers in 2011, rather than to a marked civic sense of our citizenry.

Controversy should therefore be directed toward politicians in Europe as in Italy who persist in not taking action toward the number one cause of plastic pollution of the world’s seas, single-use bottles. Greenpeace in this direction is very active, but Big Drink and its acolytes in the halls of power are not responding.

Dario Dongo


(1) Cf.

dir. 2015/720/EU

, at

(2) See directive cited above, Article 1

(3) For example, through such means as restricting or prohibiting the use of such bags in different contexts,

(4) See dir. 2015/720/EU, article 1

(5) Idem c.s.

(6) Source Legambiente

(7) Cf. Decree Law 91/17, converted with amendments into Law 123/17. See Article 9-bis, on

(8) According to technical standard UNI EN 13432:2002.

(9) Renewable feedstock must now account for at least 40% of the total (50% from 2020, 60% from 2021)

(10) The Ministry of Economic Development, in its circular 7.12.17, expressly clarified the non-applicability to organic bags of the discipline of below-cost sales

(11) See Mi.S.E. Circular 7.12.17

(12) Entering and using unsanitized bags in the fresh food department can in fact lead to the transit of common pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella, still among the top causes of alerts in the EU

(13) Assobioplastics data.

(14) Novamont, which patented Mater-Bi and controls the bioastics market in Italy, as well as about a hundred other Italian companies, among others

(15) Estimate based on Gfk-Eurisko data, given an average of 139 annual expenditures using 3 organic bags on each occasion, and so 417 bags, costing between 1 and 3 cents

(16) See report



, Legambiente, at (