Biodegradable Bags Cause Outrage in Italy. (It’s Not Really About Bags.)

An Italian law has banned plastic bags for fruit, vegetables and baked goods. Customers must pay a few cents for the biodegradable and compostable alternatives.

ROME — The Italian government learned the hard way, early this year, that no good deed goes unpunished.

Acting under a 2015 European Union directive addressing the global disaster caused by plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to degrade, Italian lawmakers enacted a measure banning the use of plastic bags for fruit, vegetables and baked goods in favor of eco-friendly biodegradable and compostable alternatives.

The government was firm on one point: The new bags could not be given out for free, and the charge of 1 euro cent to 3 euro cents per eco-friendly bag had to appear on the sales bill. Failure to charge consumers would result in a fine for the retailer.

But since the law went into effect on Jan. 1, it has been met with a flood of protests in grocery stores and supermarkets throughout Italy, as well as on social media.

One much-circulated image showed Snow White, balking from taking the poisoned apple without a bag.

Others suggested that rather than paying for bags, Italians would begin to weigh their produce individually.

Some supermarkets affixed signs on their entrance doors apologizing for the — admittedly small — surcharge.

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. And environmental activists criticized its execution.

Seeking to appease outraged consumers, the Health Ministry conceded on Thursday that consumers could bring their own biodegradable and compostable bags from home, as long as they had never been previously used.

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

That comment did not go over well with Stefano Ciafani, the director general of Legambiente, Italy’s largest environmental association.

“You would think that the director general had never been in a supermarket,” Mr. Ciafani retorted. “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.”

Legambiente applauded the spirit of the law but gave low marks to the government for execution.

“The crazy thing is that the Italian law is very advanced — more advanced than the E.U. directive. But the government handled it all badly,” Mr. Ciafani said. “They allowed a cutting-edge law to become the object of political conflict, but, then, we are in a period of electoral campaign.”

Mr. Ciafani said that if the aim of the European directive was to reduce the number of plastic bags, the Italian law missed what could have been an opportunity to, for example, adopt the mesh bags used in many northern European countries to bag fruits and vegetables.

“I am not aware of any epidemic outbreaks in Europe because of the reusable mesh bags in Germany, Austria or Switzerland,” he said.

Gian Luca Galletti, the environment minister, defended the government on Friday. Charging consumers was a way of making them aware of “this environmental action,” he told Radio24, adding that he was very proud of the new rule.

“The environmental rationale behind this measure is very clear,” Mr. Galletti continued. “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 tried to answer that and other questions. Writing in Rome daily La Repubblica, the author Marco Belpoliti called the two-cent revolt “a thermometer of the country’s unease,” and urged politicians to pay attention. In the Turin newspaper La Stampa, Enrico Bei said that the electoral jousting caused by the bag fees marked a new low in Italy’s political debate.

Some called the reaction hypocritical.

“Everyone is always quick to say that they are environmentally friendly and mock Trump for global warming, but where you ask them for a minuscule and a little-more-than-symbolic concrete contribution, they become indignant,” the historian Marco Gervasoni wrote in a front-page editorial published on Thursday in Il Messaggero.

Italian news outlets reported that the annual cost per family averaged between €4 and €12.50 per year, or about $4.80 to $15, depending on how much one paid per bag.

The irony is that the griping over the need to pay 1 or 2 cents for produce bags far outweighed protests over 5 percent increases in domestic gas and electricity bills as well as increases in highway tolls.

“We pay half of our income in taxes, and then our blood boils for a bag that costs a euro cent,” the conservative journalist Vittorio Feltri wrote on Twitter

Not all vendors were willing to pass the buck, or the penny.

“We’re already taxed and harassed, and soon they’ll be charging for air,” said Leonardo Massimo, a fruit and vegetable vendor in the Campo de’ Fiori, a market square in central Rome. He said his clients had not complained about the cost of the bags — but only because he was not charging for them.

“I refuse to! You can’t force me” to make clients pay, he said. “If they want to fine me, they can come. But really: People can’t take it anymore.”

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