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ENVIRONMENT

Ministry wants early ban on single-use plastic bags

Austria’s environment ministry is pushing for a voluntary agreement where shops will no longer be able to hand out free single-use plastic bags to customers - before an EU deadline comes into force at the end of 2018.

Ministry wants early ban on single-use plastic bags
A plastic bag discarded on a beach.

Under new rules agreed last year, EU member states will have to ensure that by 2018, no more lightweight bags are given out free to shoppers, or to limit the use of bags to 90 per person per year by the end of 2019 and to 40 by the end of 2025. For now, the very thin bags used for fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are excluded from this agreement.

Denmark introduced a tax for all shops which gave customers plastic bags in 2003, which pushed the use of reusable bags. Denmark now has some of the lowest plastic bag use in Europe.

Single-use plastic bags are found everywhere because they are cheap, lightweight, strong and hygienic but they are problematic because they are made of non-renewable resources and can’t be recycled. A single plastic bag can take 500 years or more to degrade.

Scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. According to Austrian NGO Global 2000, 40 tonnes of plastic waste end up in the Danube river every year.

In Austria most big supermarket chains no longer provide single-use plastic bags and charge their customers for paper or reusable plastic bags. Many shoppers now carry fabric “bags for life” with them when they go grocery shopping. The environment ministry wants to gradually phase out plastic shopping bags altogether.

Nicole Berkmann from the Spar supermarket chain says that since Spar stores started selling reusable and biodegradable plastic bags ten years ago, around 15 percent of customers have switched to those. The Rewe chain has also been selling fabric bags, as well as reusable plastic and paper bags since the 1990s.

Other big firms such as Mediamarkt only stopped giving out free plastic bags and charging for reusable ones a year ago. A spokesman said that demand for plastic bags has “significantly declined since then”. However, large chains such as DM and Tchibo still give out free plastic bags, and they are usually available in bakers and chemists as well.

In the United States, hundreds of cities in the state of California have plastic bag bylaws forbidding their use, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. Chicago, Seattle and Austin also have bans.

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WILDFIRES

Europe facing record year for wildfire destruction: EU

Europe's blistering summer may not be over yet, but 2022 is already breaking records, with nearly 660,000 hectares ravaged since January, according to the EU's satellite monitoring service.

Europe facing record year for wildfire destruction: EU

And while countries on the Mediterranean have normally been the main seats of fires in Europe, this year, other countries are also suffering heavily.

Fires this year have forced people to flee their homes, destroyed buildings and burned forests in EU countries, including Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Some 659,541 hectares (1.6 million acres) have been destroyed so far, data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) showed, setting a record at this point in the year since data collection began in 2006.

Europe has suffered a series of heatwaves, forest fires and historic drought that experts say are being driven by human-induced climate change.

They warn more frequent and longer heatwaves are on the way.

The worst-affected country has been Spain, where fire has destroyed 244,924 hectares, according to EFFIS data.

The EFFIS uses satellite data from the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

The data comes after CAMS said Friday that 2022 was a record year for wildfire activity in southwestern Europe and warned that a large proportion of western Europe was now in “extreme fire danger”.

“2022 is already a record year, just below 2017,” EFFIS coordinator Jesus San-Miguel said. In 2017, 420,913 hectares had burned by August 13, rising to 988,087 hectares by the end of the year.

“The situation in terms of drought and extremely high temperatures has affected all of Europe this year and the overall situation in the region is worrying, while we are still in the middle of the fire season,” he said.

Since 2010, there had been a trend towards more fires in central and northern Europe, with fires in countries that “normally do not experience fires in their territory”, he added.

“The overall fire season in the EU is really driven mainly by countries in the Mediterranean region, except in years like this one, in which fires also happen in central and northern regions,” he added.

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