We first started tracking the plastic bag issue in 2002, reporting on Ireland’s PlasTax and various other bag bans and taxes worldwide. While most of the efforts we covered were government-led, there were also significant grassroots movements building to control the bag beast we've created over the past 25 years. Here’s a look back at our coverage of this issue over the years, a snapshot of the formation of the early years of the movement from 2003-2007.
In South Africa, plastic bags have been dubbed the "national flower" because so many can be seen flapping from fences and caught in bushes. In response to the government threat of a ban on single-use plastic bags, the plastics industry lobbied for a bag tax instead. Negotiations led to a bag tax set for introduction in May 2003, to be paid by manufacturers and passed on to consumers. Similar to the Irish PlasTax, the charge per bag will appear on shoppers' sales receipts as a reminder that they can save money if they use reusable bags. South Africa is also improving recovery and recycling systems.
The Kenyan government, in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, issued a report on Feb. 23, 2005 suggesting that Kenya ban the common plastic bag that one gets at the checkout counter of grocery stores, and place a levy on other plastic bags, all to combat the country's environmental problems stemming from the bags' popularity. Money raised from the levies might be used to create more effective recycling programs. Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki recently said: "In our major cities, plastic bags are used in large quantities at the household level. However, these bags are not disposed of in ways that ensure a clean environment. My country welcomes initiatives to address this problem." Read more about the report here.
In 2006 Vice-President Ali Mohamed Shein declared a total ban on plastic bags. Kenya and Uganda are implementing less severe restrictions, prohibiting thinner plastic bags and imposing levies on thicker ones. According to the BBC, Kenya's partial ban went into effect on June 14, 2007, and Uganda followed on July 1. Meanwhile, South Africa's 2003 initiative has curbed the number of bags floating around the country, but some environmentally-focused constituents are complaining that the funds from the tax have not been funneled into recycling programs or other green initiatives. Others worry that retailers are even profiting from the levies because they upcharge customers for the bags. More on this here. Kenya faces a tougher battle: With 48 million plastic bags produced locally each year, plastics manufacturers are not caving in, and people are slow to adopt reusable bags. Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai is urging shoppers to carry kiondos (baskets).
Australia is in the process of deciding how to control plastic bag waste, and is considering a tax on single-use HDPE bags.
The retailers' Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Carry Bags was accepted by Ministers in October 2003. There are many commitments, including reaching a 25% reduction in plastic bag use by the end of 2004 and a 50% reduction in plastic bag use by 2005. The Code includes a commitment by retailers to report twice a year. Initial reports show that Australian supermarket shoppers slashed their use of plastic bags by 29% by June 2004! Furthermore, Coles Bay in Tasmania successfully banned plastic check-out bags in all their retail stores. In the first twelve months, Coles Bay stopped the use of 350,000 plastic check-out bags.
Planet Ark, an Australian organization that runs public campaigns to educate consumers on environmental issues, estimates retailers Coles, Woolworths, and Safeway stores have sold over 10 million reusable bags – a sound alternative to "giveaway" plastic bags. Most efforts by retailers have been voluntary, and major retailers cut their plastic usage by 45% between 2003 and 2005. Retailers hope that the success of voluntary efforts will preclude any levies on plastic bag consumption. In 2006, the state of Victoria began charging consumers for each plastic bag they use. Smaller businesses are exempt, but the government hopes that the initiative will reduce the 1.1 billion bags per year consumed in Victoria alone. This measure might push the rest of Australia to adopt similar measures. For example, a spokesperson for NSW Environment ministry stated, "If Victoria comes up with a workable model then we would certainly be interested in considering it." More on this here.
In March 2002, Bangladesh put a ban on all polyethylene bags in the capital, Dhaka, after they were found to have been the main culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. Discarded bags were choking the drainage system. Plans are to extend the ban nationwide.
The polythene ban is leading to a revival of the jute bag industry and other sustainable and biodegradable alternatives. It is widely acknowledged that jute may be one of the solutions to the polythene menace. Jute grows abundantly in Bangladesh and requires a lot less energy for processing than polythene.
The revival of the jute bag industry in Bangladesh continues to provide sustainable living for Bangladeshis. In 2006 Australia's organization "Keep Australia Beautiful" awarded a "Plastic Bag Reduction Award" to a business that provides sustainable-trade, Bangladesh-made jute bags to mainstream Australian retailers.
In June 2007, the Belgium government starts phasing in a tax on single-use plastic bags to change retailers' habits. "If the only way people will understand is through their pocketbooks," a Belgian store owner states, "so be it." More on this here.
The Ontario government has committed to reduce plastic bag consumption 50% in the next five years. The initiative also includes monitoring and reporting to ensure progress is indeed made. "Ontarians use almost 80 plastic bags per second - that's close to seven million bags every day," said Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten. "Reducing the volume of plastic bags that end up in landfills is a top priority for us," she added. For more information, visit our Newsroom.
The Canadian Plastics Industry is launching defensive strategies, including websites such as myplasticbags.ca, arguing that plastic bags are useful, convenient, and inexpensive. They urge customers to use them but to use them wisely by reusing and recycling. "It is hard to think of a world without them," the website proclaims.
The term "white pollution" has been coined in China for the tumbleweed of polythene blowing on the streets. According to UK's The Guardian, 2 billion bags are used each day.
To combat the growing problem of plastic bags in China, Guo Geng, a political adviser in Beijing, has proposed the introduction of a "bag tax" to decrease demand for plastic bags and to raise more money to tackle pollution caused by the bags. Media reports claim that the Ministry of Finance is conducting a feasibility study for introducing such a tax.
China prohibits stores from giving away free plastic bags. Their strategy, removed from the increasingly-common bans and taxes of other countries, states that a clearly marked price must be placed beside bags previously given away. Additionally, ultrathin plastic bags of less than 0.025 millimeters were banned, with further talk of bag taxes in the future.
As part of a larger packaging tax introduced in 1994, Denmark taxes plastic bags. The stated aim is to promote reusable bags. However, the tax is paid by retailers when they purchase bags, rather than by shoppers, yielding less dramatic results than the Irish PlasTax, which charges consumers directly for each bag used. Still, consumption of paper and plastic bags has declined 66%.
Denmark employs a general waste tax that has proven to be very successful. The waste tax is differentiated so that it is most expensive to landfill waste, cheaper to incinerate it and tax exempt to recycle it. Also, they have so-called "green" taxes on packaging, plastic bags, disposable tableware and nickel-cadmium batteries.
In 2001, it was estimated that 27 million plastic shopping bags were disposed of each day in Hong Kong. This is four times the individual consumption level in Australia. Hong Kong has implemented a campaign of "No plastic bag, please," and prohibits larger retailers from providing free bags. The program has been designed to educate the public on alternatives to plastic bags and to encourage customers to make environmentally-friendly decisions and purchases. In addition, there is a tax for products for which there is an environmentally-friendly alternative readily available.
In a paper tabled to lawmakers May 21, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department urged legislators to agree to impose a levy to cut plastic bag use, stating that a 50-cent levy could cut plastic bag use in Hong Kong -- currently estimated at 8 billion bags annually -- by one billion. Some leaders in Hong Kong are worried that charging customers for plastic bags will increase the use of paper bags. They also worry it will hurt small businesses, and advocate for increased public education efforts rather than additional levies. A member of the Green Student Council in Hong Kong states that levies do make a significant impact. "On no-plastic bag days, which is held one day a month, an average of 50 percent of shoppers bring along their own bags, so it helps."
In India, a law introduced recently prohibits plastic bags thinner than 20 microns in the cities of Bombay and Delhi, along with the entire states of Maharashtra and Kerala. The restriction is meant to discourage production and use due to the thicker bags being more expensive and has demonstrated marginal success.
In the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, a new law states that anyone found even using a polythene bag could face prison or a stiff fine. The new law bans the production, storage, use, sale and distribution of polythene bags. The law is based on legislation passed by the national parliament, but Himachal Pradesh is the first state to have implemented it. In addition, the government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra banned the manufacture, sale and use of all plastic bags, saying they choked drainage systems during recent monsoon rains. Manufacturers and stores selling plastic bags will be fined 5,000 rupees while individuals using bags face penalties of 100,000 rupees (approximately $2,000). Read more in our Newsroom.
Other parts of India are focusing on public information campaigns. According to The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in Panaji, Goa, a community has launched a system in which individuals donate old newspapers and magazines, which are cut into paper-bags and sold to shops to reduce plastic bag usage.
Republic of Ireland was consuming 1.2 billion plastic shopping bags per year before introducing the PlasTax. Since the tax of about $.15 per bag was introduced in March 2002, consumption has plummeted 90%. To complete the win-win cycle, the $9.6 million raised from the tax in the first year is put into a "green fund" to further benefit the environment.
The extremely effective PlasTax continues to produce amazing results, the latest figures estimating 95% reduction in consumption. This levy has been viewed as a major success by the government and environmental groups alike. It also has been enthusiastically embraced by Irish consumers, thanks to an intensive environmental awareness campaign launched in conjunction with the levy. Irish retailers, although initially skeptical, also have recognized the huge benefits of this levy. The amount of plastic being sent to Irish landfills has been reduced dramatically. The result: a clear, visual improvement in cities, on coastlines and in the countryside.
Ireland continues to be the paragon of countries in the fight against plastic bags. Efforts from California to Somali look to the success of the PlasTax. Customers have adopted reusable bags and retailers no longer incur much cost. In February 2007, the BBC reported that plastic bag usage per individual increased in 2006, and Ireland is raising the tax to 22 cents per bag. "We need to ensure that the success story continues into the future," stated Irish Environment Minister Dick Roche. "There has been no increase in the levy since its inception and I am anxious to ensure that its impact is not diminished." More on this here.
According to Stuff (New Zealand's leading news website with 430,000 unique users per month), it is estimated that New Zealanders use more than 2.2 million plastic bags each week. Several of New Zealand's leading retailers are taking the initiative to tackle the plastic bag beast by introducing reusable shopping bags for sale. Foodstuffs New Zealand, owner of Pak'N Save and New World, is stocking shelves with 20,000 cotton reusable bags while competitor Progressive Enterprises scrambles to follow suit. The Warehouse is also doing its own line in reusable bags. Initial results have been positive.
Government sponsored programs are promoting environmental awareness, urging consumers to Reduce Your Rubbish and consider eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags. Grassroots efforts are also popping up around the country to help in the fight to eliminate plastic bags.
A study for the New Zealand Retailers Association (NZRA) found 8 out of 10 New Zealanders used free plastic shopping bags per week. Starting in July, retailers New World, Foodtown, Woolworths, Pak'n Save, and Countdown will have their employees ask customers at checkout to think twice before using the plastic bags.
Scotland may put a "plastax" on plastic bags - recent legislation proposed in Scotland would put a 15-pence tax on each disposable plastic bag handed out to shoppers. The levy is based on Ireland's "PlasTax," which only a few months after it was implemented, succeeded in lowering plastic bag consumption 90% while raising 3.5 million euro for environmental projects.
Scotland's threatened levy on plastic carrier bags has moved closer to approval. A new bill outlining the proposal is now almost ready to be put before the Scottish Parliament. In addition, many regions are joining the fight against plastic bags. Reusable cotton shopping bags are to be distributed free to shoppers on a trial basis to encourage people to reduce the number of plastic bags they use, under the the "Fantastic it's not plastic!" initiative. Furthermore, Amy Gray, Aberdeen City Council's Business Waste Minimisation Officer says, "Aberdeen City Council is encouraging residents to become more waste aware. Refusing plastic bags at checkouts is a simple step anyone can take to reduce the amount of waste they produce. Aberdeen City Council is also lobbying for the introduction of a tax on plastic bags in line with other forms of packaging."
In late 2006 the bill to tax plastic bags was withdrawn, but its initial conception succeeded in raising awareness for voluntary efforts to protect the environment by curbing plastic bag usage. An Edinburgh supermarket is piloting a program of "green tills," allowing shoppers who are not using plastic carrier bags to get through the checkouts faster. For more information, visit our Newsroom.
Switzerland requires supermarkets to charge $.15 to $.20 per paper bag. The majority of shoppers bring their own reusable shopping bags.
The Swiss are leaders not only in the reusable bag movement but in recycled PET. Over 82% of PET sold in Switzerland is recycled. Read more about the benefits of Recycled PET here.
In October 2001, Taiwan introduced a ban on distribution of free single-use plastic bags by government agencies, schools and the military. The ban has been expanded to include supermarkets, fast food outlets and department stores, and will eventually apply to street vendors and food dealers. Disposable cutlery and dishes are also prohibited. The head of Taiwan's EPA felt so strongly about the issue that he made an ultimatum that he would quit if the ban wasn't implemented. Even though the plastic bag industry lobbied hard, it was drowned out by the majority and the ban was implemented.
In 2006 Taiwan's EPA lifted the ban and now free plastic bags can be offered by food service operators. The EPA was concerned that plastic bags reused for food could create health problems. Even though it was short-lived, its effect lingers simply because consumers became more aware of the plastic bag menace. In a survey conducted by the administration, 77% of respondents claimed to have cut back on the use of plastic bags since the ban, and 45% of respondents had continued not to consume plastic bags after the ban was lifted. "This is indeed an improvement," a statement issued by the EPA said, "given that only 18 percent reported carrying their own plastic bags before the policy was officially implemented five years ago." More on this here.
Inspired by Ireland, the United Kingdom is considering a PlasTax. The current Minister of the Environment, Michael Meacher, is in favor of it. But the British Plastics Federation, the "Carrier Bag Consortium," and other plastics industry groups are strongly opposing such a tax.
While the government has yet to adopt a plastic bag tax , it fully supports reusable carrier bags and some retailers have taken up the cause. "Bag for life" and "penny back" schemes have been introduced by some of the large supermarket chains, encouraging consumers to consider the benefits of reusable bags as an alternative to plastic bags.
As of 2007 it is estimated that the average UK consumer uses 167 plastic bags per year, and only 1 bag in 200 is recycled. The government shows no signs of introducing a ban or a tax. It prefers encouraging retailers to commit to recycling. The recent popularity of UK-based fashion designer Anya Hindmarch's "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" tote has raised popular interest in the anti-plastic bag campaign, but many environmentalists aren't convinced that making environmentalism trendy will influence usage in the long-term. Rebecca Hosking, a Devon-based activist, has succeeded in freeing her small town of plastic bags. She urges individual and grassroots efforts in the fight against plastic bags. "My best advice to anyone who wants their town to be free of plastic bags is that they are going to have to fight the fight themselves."
While this is a relatively new area of concern in the United States it is ripe to take-off. The federal system in the US means that cities, states, and local townships can initiate their own actions aimed at significantly curbing single-use plastic bags.
As many of you already know, San Francisco is thinking about imposing a 17 cent surcharge on plastic and paper grocery bags. They would be the first US city to do so, if the proposal gets the go-ahead. One study has shown that stores are handing San Franciscans around 50 million bags year!
San Francisco is banning plastic bags! Visit our Newsroom for more information. The city hopes its legislation will be a model for other US cities. New Haven, CT is also considering an ordinance that would ban plastic bags, while Marin County, CA has launched an educational campaign and encourages businesses to promote reusable bags. For more information on these efforts visit our Newsroom: New Haven story and Marin County story.
Large retailers, such as IKEA, are also forging the way for plastic bag-free shopping experiences simply by not offering free bags. In March U.S. stores started charging 5 cents per plastic bag, and the proceeds from the bag campaign will go to a conservation organization. In addition, they lowered the cost of their strong and roomy "Big Blue Bag" to encourage reuse – one sturdy, roomy bag can replace hundreds of single-use bags.
If we let our voices be heard, we will soon see cities and states around the US start to implement smart measures such as Ireland's PlasTax.
Visit our Take Action section to see what you can do to change the status quo.
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