Did we win the battle against plastic bags?

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The battle against single-use plastic bags in Albania is turning out to be lost. Illegally produced or smuggled bags continue to be present on stalls or small markets throughout the country. Out of over 2,500 inspections carried out this year, law enforcement agencies report only 7 cases of punishable abuses with fines. Experts say that the initiative is not being implemented due to a lack of willingness on the part of authorities in the fight against informality.

Esmeralda Topi

“On June 1st, we will give children bags for free, because today we have approved the legal changes in Parliament that prohibit the production, sale, import, and use of single-use plastic bags,” declared Minister of Environment and Tourism Mirela Kumbaro in March 2022, shortly after Parliament approved the legal changes with 80 votes in favour, banning the use of single-use plastic bags in our country.

However, verifications show that the battle against single-use plastic bags has been lost. As Albania failed to become the first country in Europe without plastic bags, it is now at risk of losing the fight against single-use bag prohibition as well.

Single-use bags are flourishing everywhere.

Every family in Albania uses at least two bags per day for various shopping purposes. Luljeta, a lady in her 60s, while doing her daily shopping near a small fruit and vegetable market on Elbasan Road in the capital, tells us:

“Since they started to charge you for the plastic bags, I collect them and reuse them several times until they tear.” She takes out a carefully wrapped plastic bag from her bag, ready to put the fruits and vegetables she has purchased.

However, there are cases when I also take the thin bags for free from the villagers’ stalls,” she adds, reminiscing about the time when she used to use baskets for her daily shopping.

“Before the 90s, we used baskets, and during this year, I see that they have come back into fashion,” says Luljeta with a smile.

For a year now, producers are allowed to bring to the market multi-use plastic bags, which are larger, thicker, and recyclable. However, single-use bags, either produced illegally or smuggled, can be found almost at every fruit and vegetable stand or other product stalls in Tirana.

Pëllumb Dafku, a fruit and vegetable trader in Tirana, says that for a year he has been offering buyers only the types of plastic bags allowed by law, with a fee of 10 lekë.

“I sell them for 10 lekë because the cost has increased, but there are many others just a few meters away from me who give away single-use bags for free,” he claims, emphasizing that only older people carry bags or baskets with them when they go shopping.

“The majority of young people buy them, only older people bring their own bags, baskets, or other reusable bags,” he tells Faktoje.

For a year now, almost every store, small or large, has displayed prominently that each bag for their purchases costs from 10 to 20 lekë per piece.

2539 inspections, but only 7 fines for the bags.

The bags prohibited by law are those single-use ones, with a thickness of less than 70 microns and a capacity of less than 10 kilograms. For violators, the law provides for fines ranging from 500,000 to 1,500,000 lekë, confiscation of the bags, and even revocation of the business license.

However, during almost a year, the National Environmental Agency, in collaboration with the State Inspectorate of Market Surveillance, has only uncovered seven abusive cases out of the 2,539 inspections conducted throughout the country.

“The National Environmental Agency, in cooperation with the State Inspectorate of Market Surveillance, in the implementation of the Council of Ministers’ Decision No. 367, dated May 30, 2022, ‘On the determination of detailed measures and responsible institutions for the prohibition of the use, market circulation, production, import or introduction into the territory of the Republic of Albania of carrier plastic bags, as well as oxo-degradable or oxo-biodegradable carrier plastic bags’ as amended, has imposed seven administrative measures,” the Ministry of Environment writes in response to the information request, adding that law enforcement institutions have seized 111 kg of single-use bags throughout the country.

These disappointing results were pointed out to the responsible authorities by the Minister of Environment, Mirela Kumbaro, in a meeting held prior to the first anniversary of the prohibition of single-use plastic bags in the country.

“With the implementation of the law on June 1 of last year, we are once again in a situation where we need to strengthen control, coordination, and punitive measures,” Kumbaro said

Even the Ministry of Environment acknowledges that the process requires more awareness and institutional coordination.

“The progress of this process so far, compared to previous years, can be considered successful, but more work is needed in all main aspects: a. Raising community awareness through schools and media; b. Institutional coordination with civil society, etc.,” the Ministry of Environment told Faktoje.

 What experts say?

Seit Shallari, a professor at the Agricultural University of Tirana, says that the initiative is commendable, but its implementation in the field leaves much to be desired.

“At first, it seemed to have an impact, but I think the monitoring part or, in other words, the enforcement of the law is lacking. It should be accompanied by penalties for all those who violate the law, and there should be encouragement, similar to the anti-smoking campaign, which is a concrete example of how Albanians can enforce the law. Here, I mean penalties and the work of institutions, as they are responsible for monitoring,” says Professor Shallari to Faktoje, emphasizing the importance of raising citizens’ awareness.

“All measures should proceed in parallel. People need to understand the risk that comes from plastic. It is not just visual pollution or landscape pollution, but it is pollution that has its own problems,” he stresses.

On the other hand, Vullnet Haka from the Plastic Converters Association in Albania highlights the issue of informality that is evident to law enforcement agencies.

“The businesses that operate in violation of the law continue their activities and enjoy it, while the other businesses that comply with the law see how these illegal ones are selling. Law enforcement agencies are not operating, and informality continues,” he says, adding:

“We operate in a limited market because law enforcement agencies, primarily the Market Supervision Authority, do not enforce the law. If you go to any regular store, you will find unauthorized plastic bags. They visit and observe but say they cannot impose a fine of 5 million lekë on a store. They do not want to enforce the law! We hope that with the end of the campaign and local elections, the government will focus on this issue, as we believe they have neglected it to avoid influencing the electoral campaign,” says Haka, proposing revising the penalties for violators as a solution.

“We stick to what we have previously proposed, which is to have punitive measures even for citizens. For small stores, it should be 50,000 lekë, for medium-sized businesses 150,000 lekë, and for large businesses 500,000 lekë,” he concludes.

On June 1st, the responsible authorities announced that there would be no tolerance for law violators.

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