Italians Are Balking at a New Produce Bag Fee

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Italians shopping for fresh fruits and veggies will now be required to bring their own never-used biodegradable plastic produce bags from home if they want to avoid a small fee for a store-issued bag. . (Photo: Alexandra E. Rust/flickr)

At the top of 2011, Italy made history when it became the first European nation to formally impose a ban on plastic shopping bags.

For the most part, life in the gastronomically inclined country went on as normal. True, there was some to-be-expected pushback and initial confusion in supermarket checkout lanes. But Italians largely embraced the non-biodegradable bag ban with minimal dramatic hand gestures and impassioned shouting. (At the time, Italy was consuming roughly 20 billion throwaway plastic bags per year, one-fifth of all European use.)

The reaction to a new government crackdown on "ultra-light" plastic bags used to carry produce and baked goods, however, has elicited quite the Italian-style uproar.

As reported by the New York Times, Italian grocers have been mandated to swap out rolls of single-use plastic produce bags — the kind you’d see hanging from dispensers in the meat, produce, bulk or self-serve bakery sections of a supermarket — with biodegradable and compostable alternatives. Not a bad thing at all — if the "big" plastic shopping bags available up front at the registers are required to be biodegradable, why shouldn’t the same rule apply to the thin little bags holding your melanzane and biscotti?

'People can't take it anymore ...'

To be clear, it's not the switch to new, eco-friendly produce bags that's causing Italian shoppers' blood to boil. It's the 1 euro to 3 euro cent surcharge for each bag. Italian news media estimates that charging a couple of cents for produce bags could add anywhere from 4 euros to 12.50 euros ($4.80 to $15) to a typical family’s annual grocery tab.

And as the Times notes, if grocers and produce vendors decide not to enforce the produce bag fee, they risk being slapped with hefty fines for failing to comply.

At least one grocer, a fruit and vegetable vendor in Rome’s central market square, Leonardo Massimo, is refusing to play along. "We're already taxed and harassed, and soon they’ll be charging for air," he says. "If they want to fine me, they can come. But really: People can’t take it anymore."

What's more, the bag blowback has become something of a political talking point. Writes the Times:

Italy is hardly the first country to switch to biodegradable and compostable bags from plastic. But with national elections set for March 4, the issue immediately pushed political buttons. Opposition leaders indignantly accused the government of weighing down Italian households with yet another fiscal imposition.

In addition to voicing their displeasure with the new law, some Italian shoppers have resorted to unique work-arounds. Instead of placing their produce into a single bag and weighing it together, as is custom, they’ve taken to weighing each single piece of produce individually before heading to the checkout line.

But what about reusable produce bags?

To quell outrage over the new rule, the country’s Health Ministry promptly announced that the law will be tweaked to allow shoppers to bring their own biodegradable produce bags as long as they hadn’t been used before.

"The reuse of the bags could determine the risk of bacterial contamination," Giuseppe Ruocco, the director general of the Health Ministry, told the Italian media.

Instead of soothing things over, the bring-your-own-bag exemption has prompted additional criticism, particularly from prominent Italian environmental organizations such as Legambiente. While Legambiente isn't necessarily at odds with the government’s ultimate goals, the group believes that shoppers should be allowed and encouraged to use reusable mesh produce bags — quite popular elsewhere in Europe — instead of single-use bags, even if they happen to be biodegradable. After all, single-use biodegradable plastic bags still generate waste and eventually wind up in landfills or littering the natural landscape; they just don’t stick around as long as their non-biodegradable counterparts.

"You would think that the director general had never been in a supermarket," says Stefano Ciafani, head of Legambiente. "He suggests that the fruit and vegetable aisle is akin to a sterilized operating room where nothing must be touched. There’s dirt on those vegetables, that’s a fact."

He adds: "I am not aware of any epidemic outbreaks in Europe because of the reusable mesh bags in Germany, Austria or Switzerland."

Despite backlash from consumers, grocers and environmental groups, the country’s environmental minister, Gian Luca Galletti, continues to hold his ground and fully back the new law.

"The environmental rationale behind this measure is very clear," Galletti tells Italian news radio station, Radio24. "We always act shocked when we see photos of fish dying, suffocated by plastic, and then we get all upset for a measure that goes in the direction of resolving this problem."

Political commentators like Marco Gervasoni, a history professor and columnist, agree that the outrage is misplaced. He writes in a front-page editorial published in Roman daily newspaper Il Messaggero: "Everyone is always quick to say that they are environmentally friendly and mock Trump for global warming, but when you ask them for a minuscule and a little-more-than-symbolic concrete contribution, they become indignant."

Would you be up-in-arms if a similar law was enacted in your neck of the woods?