Plague of the Plastic Bag: Problem, Policies, & What You Can Do

By Lauren DeMates.

We all know plastic is well- you know- bad. But plastic products have been receiving increased attention lately from overflowing our landfills, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to killing whales. There is also the visually stunning 70 Degrees West blog which documents the human and environmental aspects of the plastic problem traveling along 70 degrees longitude from ‘pole to pole.’ With the issue already in the limelight, I would like this post to focus on the common plastic bag and what countries have done to decrease their use. Although plastic is used as many other products, plastic bags deserve the focus because of the expansiveness of their use: Americans use on average 500 per year and Europeans use 191.  Combined with improper disposal there is a problem.

Why do we use so many plastic bags and why do they end up littering our environment?  Simply, convenience. The negative environmental effects of plastic are not factored into their cost of production, thus their low market price creates incentives to use and has translated into a lack of convenient avenues for disposal. This is a prime example of a negative externality: plastic everywhere, garbage patches, and the death of marine animals, among a whole slew of other negative consequences. Here is an exploration of what various countries are doing about it. Although there are many cities and states also taking action, this post focuses on the national level.

Global: Which countries are taking action and what are they doing?

Countries can either use a ‘command and control’ or a ‘market mechanism’ to address the plastic bag problem. Command and control is legislation that bans the production, import, and/or use of plastic bags. A market mechanism is when the government uses the market to decentivize use. This can be achieved through a tax, fee, or levee put on plastic bags either at the point of production or supply. Countries can also have a combined approach where they ban super-thin plastic bags and place a tax on other plastic bags. Here are tables showing the approach that countries have taken and information analyzing the effectiveness of the legislation. Tables were compiled from research that I did the beginning of this year (2013).

Country Ban Year Notes
Italy Retail level (only compostable and cloth bags to be offered to consumers) 2011 Very low tax on plastic bags was in place since late 1980s, but was too low to be effective
Bangladesh Retail and production/import level for all polythene bags 2002 No data on effectiveness
China Retail and production/import of free plastic shopping bags 25 microns or thinner 2008 66% reduction
Rwanda Retail and production/import on bags less than 100 microns thick 2005 Partial ban in 2005, but updated to complete ban in 2008No data on effectiveness
Tanzania Retail and production/import 2006 No data on effectiveness
Somalia Ban on ultra thin bags 2005 No data on effectiveness
Kenya Production/import level on bags thinner than 60 microns 2011 2007 ban on bags less than 30 microns failed
Eritrea Retail and production/import level 2005 No data on effectiveness
Papa New Guinea Retail and production/import level 2009 No data on effectiveness
Country Tax or Levy Year Notes
Ireland Retail level 2002 More than 90% reduction
Denmark Based on weight at production/import level 1994 66% reduction, but has been noted that use of plastic bags have increased since the tax hasn’t been changed since 1998
Malta Production/import level 2005 No data on effectiveness
Bulgaria Production/import level 2011 233%increase in tax scheduled for 2013
Belgium Production/import level 2007 80% reduction
Country Ban Year Notes
Taiwan Ban on plastic bags with thickness less than 60 microns and levy at retail level (retailer decides and keeps levy) 2002-2003 phase in Dropped by 80% in first year than rebounded slightly; estimates say 69% now. Policy partially retracted to allow plastic bag use for fast food in 2006
South Africa Ban on bags under 30 microns thick and tax on bags thicker 2003 44% reduction in use reported
Uganda Ban on bags under 30 microns thick and 120% tax on thicker 2012 Ban was brought to parliament in 2007, but wasn’t passed

Based on qualitative research of these cases, here are recommendations to increase the effectiveness of plastic bag policies:

  • It is vital to attempt to calculate and monetize the true cost to society of plastic bags or at least consumer’s willingness to pay; utilizing this information to set tax or as support for ban
  • Integrate into policy the capacity to monitor policy effects and to make changes if desired results are not achieved
  • Include mechanism to increase the accessibility and ease of plastic bag recycling; thus policy does not only address excess use of bags, but also the low recycle rate
  • Consider the power and influence of the plastics industry in country where policy is to be implemented; this influence not only limits national policies, but would significantly hinder any effort through international bodies such as the United Nations. With strong influence, municipal or state policies may be more plausible.
  • Policies can be more successful if they have the support from government leaders, thus getting leaders on board from the beginning may help put policies into place and overall acceptance
  • Consumer behavior needs to change in long run for real effects thus education should also be a part of policy
  • Efforts to implement and monitor plastic bag policies should be transparent and act as guide for other countries; there is currently a lack of accessible and reliable information of policies and effectiveness

Local: What you can do

Use less plastic bags. Make sure the plastic that you do use is reused to extend its life as long as possible and then properly disposed of. Most grocery stores recycle plastic bags; or use as trash liner at least once. I would also like to note that the majority of plastic packaging is in fact recyclable although much of it ends up where the plastic bags do. If you see a number anywhere on the packaging- that is identifying the type of plastic. It depends on your city as to which  ‘numbers’ they collect and recycle. This is a nice slide show explaining the numbers and options for recycling.  For a more emotional connection to the issue check out The Majestic Plastic Bag as narrated by Jeremy Irons or the pictures from the blog 70 Degrees West. Also, check out if a screening of Plastic Paradise is coming to your area. You will never look at plastic the same way again.

4 thoughts

  1. Here in South Australia plastic bags (the light plastic not the heavier plastic used at department stores) are banned. Most people here are now used to bringing their reusable bags with them or they can pay for a plastic bag.

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