Fiction: There is a trend around the world to ban plastic shopping bags.
Fact: No. A scan of worldwide activities on plastic bags shows that the dominant trend world wide for a number of years has been to recycling and the use of product stewardship principles (the 3 Rs) to manage bags.
A scan of plastic bag activities around the world shows:
- Australia: When a nation-wide, voluntary reduction program reached only 45% of a 50% reduction target, two state governments undertook to ban plastic shopping bags—Southern Australia (2009) and the Northern Territory (2011). There is no national ban, The South Australia ban pertains to carry bags less than 35 microns thick only, which were banned because of litter concerns. The Northern Territory introduced a ban as a waste management measure. And Western Australia voted in 2012 to reject a ban. Australian retailers provide in-store recycling.
- Bangladesh: Bangladesh was the first to impose a nation-wide ban on plastic bags in 2001 because of flooding concerns with bags clogging drainage systems. The ban was imposed as a substitute for putting in place an effective waste management system. The ban has been a failure for a number of reasons including lack of enforcement, jute reusable bags are too costly for many, and paper alternatives tear and soak through too easily if used to carry their food staple fish.
- Belgium: The country is strongly committed to recycling. In 2007, Belgium passed a tax on plastic bags along with a tax on plastic films (like dry cleaning bags), aluminum foil, and disposable cutlery. The resulting revenue is directed to a recycling firm.
- Canada: Canadians are highly committed to product stewardship—reduce, reuse and recycling of plastic bags. Bags are collected in blue bin and take-back-to-retail programs. Recycling rates are high, but vary by province, from 32% in B.C. 35% in Ontario, and close to 50% in many Atlantic Provinces. Provincial Voluntary 50% Reduction Programs have been highly successful in Ontario and Quebec, reducing bag usage by -68% and -52%, respectively, and the conversion rate to reusable bags has also been high. Few bans have been enacted—only seven in total, of which one is voluntary. Two bans, in Sioux Lookout, ON and Greenstone, ON, were rescinded in favour of recycling.
- China: In 2008, China banned ultra-thin bags which were thinner than 0.025 millimetres (20 micrometres) and imposed a fee on all other bags. China is working to put regional recycling in place. The Chinese tend to shop daily in small quantities because of a lack of refrigeration.The ban is reported to be effective in reducing bag usage by 66%. Supermarkets have complied with the ban, but compliance is inconsistent across the country. It is reported that 80 percent of retail stores in rural regions and 96 percent of open food markets throughout Beijing continue to provide plastic bags free of charge.
- Denmark: Denmark introduced a series of “green” taxes in 1994, which included a tax on plastic bags. Their strategy was to reduce waste through the “polluter pays” principle. Manufacturers and importers of plastic bags are required to pay a tax based on the weight of plastic bags. Retailers are not required to pass on the tax to their customers, but some retailers, especially supermarkets, do charge consumers for plastic bags, thereby recovering costs. Denmark has a highly successful and well established recycling system.
- France: Plastic shopping bags are still on the market in France. In 2005, France passed a ban on all non-biodegradable plastic bags, to be effective as of 2010, which French MP’s see as an amendment. Since then, only biodegradable plastic bags have been allowed. The ban came as part of an agricultural bill aimed not at environmental concerns, but rather to support their farming sector by providing farmers with a new market opportunity: plant matter for use in bioplastics (“materials of vegetable origins”). French MPs said they expect the coming amendment to help French farmers find new market opportunities as production subsidies through the EU's common agricultural policy are progressively declining.
- Germany: In Germany, Grüner Punkt (Green Dot) has been providing an efficient system for the return, recovery and recycling of plastic shopping bags for 20 years. Around 97% of carrier bags are being collected and fed into a high quality recycling process. Reusable bags are well entrenched and consumers pay a fee to use plastic shopping bags.
- Hong Kong: In 2007, Hong Kong’s Environment Protection Department sought to begin a ban on plastic shopping bags. It was to be introduced in stages starting with a US$0.06 per-bag tax which had little impact on reducing the number of plastic bags distributed. There was some increase in the use of reusable bags and a slight decrease in the number of plastic shopping bags. However, retailers had no incentive to charge the tax. So the levy was modified into a fee to give large retailers stronger incentive to implement the reduction strategy. Hong Kong retailers provide in-store recycling.
- India: Here, the issue is related to an ineffective waste management system. The unregulated disposal of waste and open garbage disposal has created a national litter crisis. Efforts to ban plastic bags by civic authorities have met with little success because of glaring disregard for the bans. In 2001, Mumbai banned the use of ultra thin plastic bags less than 20 microns in thickness. In 2005, this was increased to 50 microns. In 2009, Delhi banned plastic shopping bags. The state government of Himachal Pradesh has taken action on the recycling front, blending plastic waste with tar to pave roads.
- Ireland: In 2002, Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags that led to a 94% reduction in the number of bags handed out at checkout. Since 2002, the tax has been increased twice to discourage usage. One of the consequences of the tax was an increase in the use of paper bags and a 77% increase in the purchase of kitchen catchers, leading to much higher levels of plastic in the waste system. Ireland is working hard to build a recycling infrastructure. Currently, most waste is exported for processing.
- Italy: In 2011, Italy banned plastic shopping bags made from non-biodegradable plastic and mandated the use of compostable plastic in the manufacture of the bags. The bags are still on the market being used by retailers and consumers. The move was made to support a growing bioplastics sector within the country.
- Japan: Japan has adopted a decentralized product stewardship approach by municipalities. Retailers charge fees on bags. Japan has some of the highest recycling rates on plastics in the world. In 2010, 77% of all plastic bags were recycled.
- Malta: Malta has a small tax on plastic shopping bags which has encouraged the adoption of bags-for-life. A lower tax was put on degradable plastics. Malta has door-side recycling.
- Mauritius Island: In 2003, non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags were banned and oxo-degradable bags allowed.
- Mexico: In 2009, Mexico City banned non-biodegradable plastic bags and mandated biodegradable plastic bags. The bags are still on the market being handed out by retailers and used by consumers, but they are subject to a fee. There is currently discussion by legislators in Mexico about moving away from biodegradable plastic bags and moving toward a recycling system for non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags because biodegradable bags cannot be recycled.
- Netherlands: Plastic shopping bags are not provided for free. Thicker plastic bags can be purchased at point of sale for about (EU) €0.20. They have a strong commitment to recycling.
- New Zealand: Retailers in New Zealand have agreed to voluntarily reduce the number of bags distributed at check out. They offer curbside recycling of bags.
- Rwanda: This is one of the few countries where a complete bag ban, enacted in 2008, has been respected and is strictly enforced. Its success is largely due to the commitment of residents. Paper bags are in use as the alternative.
- Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland: A 2005 plastic bag ban has been virtually ignored in both countries, partially because of issues related to affordability of the alternatives.
- South Africa: In 2003, South Africa introduced a ban on plastic bags that were less than 30 microns thick, and thicker bags were taxed. Tax revenue was directed to developing a plastics collection system and recycling infrastructure for the bags. The tax was effective in reducing the number of plastic bags distributed, but had serious employment impacts and has proved costly for the poor. Enforcement of the ban has been difficult and bootleg bags are common.
- Spain: In 2010, to help address their deficit, Spain imposed a (EU) €0.05 tax on plastic bags distributed at check out. In 2012, the tax is slated to be increased to (EU) €0.10 per bag.
- Taiwan: In 2006, Taiwan rescinded a 2001 ban on plastic bags in the food service sector. The ban had the unintended consequence of generating a “mountain of waste” as the food service industry switched to paper bags. Another unintended consequence was a significant spike in greenhouse gases because of the increased number of garbage trucks on the road, required to transport roughly seven times the additional waste to dumps. Also, public polling showed that the public was very dissatisfied with the ban. So in 2006, the government rescinded the bag ban and moved to a recycling model.
- Tanzania: In 2006, Tanzania put a ban on ultra-thin plastic bags, which has proven difficult to enforce. They are working on reintroducing legislation.
- United Kingdom: Retailers and the plastic bag industry have been working on a voluntary basis throughout the decade to reduce the number of plastic bags being distributed. These initiatives have met with some success. UK retailers have also been working with the government on more effective recycling models. Bag bans are evident in some smaller cities throughout the UK. When a recent reduction initiative failed to achieve target in Wales and Northern Ireland, Wales introduced a legislated fee on bags which retailers keep. Northern Ireland plans to follow Wales with similar legislation. Wales introduced its fee in late 2011 and saw an immediate decrease in bag. consumption. However, there was a sharp increase in the number of bags for life purchased (+142%).
- United States: San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to ban non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags from supermarkets and large pharmacies in 2007. The city mandated the use of compostable plastic bags, paper bags, or reusable checkout bags. The city was boycotted by recyclers at the time because compostable bags are seen as a contaminant to the recycling stream. In communities with bag bans, paper bags and reusables are promoted as alternatives to plastic bags in grocery stores. Since 2007, a number of other municipalities have followed suit although some states have opted for mandatory recycling (New York State). In 2012, Seattle and Los Angeles introduced bans. The preferred option in LA and Seattle is the paper bag. Four counties in Hawaii have adopted different bans on the use of plastic bags leaving retailers, consumers, and bag manufacturers to deal with a patchwork of laws and requirements. There is no state-wide ban. A statewide initiative to ban previously failed in California as well bag fees are disallowed in the state. According to the US EPA, the recycling rate for plastic bags, sacks and pouches was 15% in 2010 and has risen steadily over the past 10 years. http://www.bagtheban.com/learn-the-facts/recycling/. Over the past ten years, take-back-to-retail recycling has become more popular.
- Zanzibar: In 2008, the government imposed a ban on the use of plastic bags less than 30 microns thick, but the ban failed due to a lack of enforcement. In 2012, the government reintroduced a total ban. The ban is to be strictly enforced at all points of entry to the country.