Plastic-Bag Bans Gaining Momentum Around the World
for National Geographic News
|April 4, 2008|
From Australia to the U.K., and all across the U.S., politicians and corporations are pondering banning or taxing plastic bags.
A hefty surcharge that began in 2003 in Ireland has spurred the public there to spurn plastic bags almost completely in favor of reusable cloth totes.
Plastic sacks are also taxed in Italy and Belgium. Grocery shoppers must pay for the bags in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Spain, Norway, and now the U.K. are considering a ban or tax as well.
The political action in the U.K. on single-use plastic bags follows similar gestures earlier this year in Australia.
There a national ban or tax is being hotly debated, though the state of South Australia, which includes the city of Adelaide, has promised a ban on free single-use bags by year's end no matter what.
The state's premier, Mike Rann, listed familiar reasons for the ban: The bags contribute to greenhouse gases, clog up landfills, litter streets and streams, and kill wildlife.
Unsightly pollution appears to be behind China's January announcement of a countrywide ban on the thinnest totes and a tax on others. It begins June 1, two months before the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Taiwan taxes the bags, and the cities of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Mumbai, India, ban them to prevent flood-inducing storm-drain clogs during monsoon season.
Once jokingly called the "national flower," thin plastic bags have been banned in South Africa since 2003; thicker ones are taxed. Similar measures exist in Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.
In the U.S., the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, California, ban the bags and promote reusable and compostable sacks. Elsewhere in the state supermarkets are required to take back and recycle the bags.
Similar take-back and recycle initiatives are on the books or under consideration in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.
And some sort of action is an agenda item in seemingly every boardroom and city hall across the U.S., according to Vincent Cobb, founder of Chicago, Illinois-based Reusablebags.com.
"We all have the tendency to buy too much stuff, and I think that symbolic nature is what has made this such a powerful thing," he said of the movement to cut down on plastic bags.
Lisa Mastny is the consumption project director for the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute.
She said bans are generally meant to keep plastic bags from entering the environment as litter or landfill, but most legislation fails to promote environmentally sound alternatives such as cloth bags.
In the U.S., opposition to bans and taxes from retailers and the plastics industry has led to the take-back and recycling focus, which Mastny said is helpful but does little to change consumer behavior.
"There's nothing stopping [shoppers] from taking the bags in the same quantities that they were before," she said.
More effective measures, she said, are taxation schemes such as Ireland's so-called PlasTax. There carriers are now taxed at 22 euro cents (34 U.S. cents) each, and usage has dropped 95 percent.
In fact, she added, Ireland recently raised the tax to combat resurging plastic bag use. It appears to be working.
But Keith Christman, senior director of packaging at the American Chemistry Council and Progressive Bag Affiliates in Arlington, Virginia, said bans and taxes on plastic bags "are not the right approach."
He noted that such measures force retailers to switch to paper bags, which consume more energy and release more greenhouse gases to produce and supply than do plastic bags.
In addition, he said, 92 percent of consumers reuse their plastic bags to line garbage bins and pickup after pets, among other things. Without free bags from the grocery store, consumers are forced to buy them.
Ireland's PlasTax, Christman noted, has led to a 400 percent increase in plastic bag purchases.
"We think the right approach is to promote recycling of plastic bags, and we've seen much success in that regard," he said.
In 2006, according to the council, 812 million pounds (368 million kilograms) of plastic bags were recycled, up 24 percent from 2005. The bags are recycled into new bags and used for fencing and decking material.
Cobb, whose Web site sells reusable bags and serves as a clearinghouse for information on the single-use bag issue, agreed recycling is a good step but said a tax charged at checkout is needed to change consumer behavior.
"Plastic bags aren't inherently bad," he said. "It's the mindlessness and volume of consumption of plastic bags that occurs. As people wake up to that, I think we are going to see a shift."
The U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods Market is not waiting for political mandates to cut down on plastic waste. The store recently announced a phase-out of all plastic bags from its stores by Earth Day, April 22.
"What we're really trying to do is encourage reusable bags being brought to the checkout," spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins said.
The store gives shoppers five to ten cents back, depending on location, for each reusable bag they bring. Recyclable paper bags made from recycled material will remain available at the store, she added.
In the U.K., supermarket chain Tesco has switched to biodegradable bags, and this May Marks & Spencer food stores will begin to charge 5 pence (10 cents) per plastic bag.
Mastny said such initiatives are partly an easy—and visible—way for companies to show they care about the environment.
"I'm not saying it's totally greenwash, but obviously there are PR benefits to doing something like this," she said.
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