A Global Look at Plastic Bag Bans

Over the last several years cities across the United States have contemplated and/or put bans on plastic bags into motion. Those who support the bans cite the environmental impacts. Plastic bags cannot safely break down; they sit in landfills because even though most are recyclable people just do not properly dispose of them. Some supporters lean on the health issues at stake: bags that sit in landfills take up space and collect rain water, which creates ideal conditions for mosquitos to lay eggs. Mosquitos can carry harmful and deadly diseases, such as West Nile, malaria, and dengue. Banning bags is intended to start off a chain reaction. If stores do not give customers plastic bags those customers will not carelessly litter or toss those bags into the trash. If the bags are not tossed in the trash they will not be dumped into landfills where they will sit and possibly aid in the increase of the mosquito population, which in turn can lead to disease and in some cases death. Many municipalities are backing bag bans due to the expense of litter cleanup. Litter typically consists significantly of plastic bags and millions of dollars are spent each year plucking discarded bags from trees, waterways, parks, and other areas. Different regions have different reasons, but the end result is always the same, plastic bags need to be banned.

India's Poorly Enforced Ban

The Delhi government in India passed a ban on plastic bags that began in January 2009. Their story was the same story that has played out in countless U.S. cities. Environmentalists claim the abundance of bags creates a litter crisis. This litter clogs drains, creating ideal breeding conditions for mosquitos. India is a country that struggles with poverty, and cramped living conditions coupled with an environment that encourages the spread of disease can lead to public health issues on a massive level. On paper the Delhi ban called to put an end to the production, storage, distribution, and use of plastic bags. The law mandated that biodegradable plastic bags with a minimum thickness of 40 microns are all that is to be allowed in residential areas. Not adhering to these rules can result in fines and possibly jail time. Three years after the ban was put into place many shops still give their customers plastic bags. The logic is cyclical: store owners claim that their competitors continue to give out bags and customers flock to these stores for the convenience, so in order to maintain business they must give their customers disposable bags to carry their goods home. Residents say the law is not enforced and people continue to manufacture and use disposable plastic bags. Some stores and individuals choose not to use disposable bags and stick to reusable cotton bags or bags constructed from other materials. It is unfortunate that the law banning plastic bags is not enforced and the litter and health issues this ban would resolve continue to plague the people of Delhi. For more information on India's ban go to http://www.deccanherald.com/content/219994/shoppers-retailers-still-use-plastic.html.

EU Considers Advantages of Reusable Bags

The European Commission is mulling over a possible ban across the entire European Union. Several countries within the EU already have bans in place or have considered bans. Many European countries do not have a ban, but a fee or tax is charged to customers who use disposable bags, thus encouraging customers to bring reusable grocery bags when they head to the market. Ireland began charging a plastic bag tax in 2002. Some studies have shown that use of plastic bags dropped 90% in response to the tax. Many supporters consider Ireland a model of success and look to mimic their system. Litter was a main motivator for Ireland and is also the primary reason most of Europe backs this movement, especially the negative effect of litter in marine environments. There is a lot of support for banning plastic bags in many EU countries and right now the European Commission is navigating the political waters in regards to how they can implement a ban or a tax on bags. In the meantime individual countries are considering their own options. For more information on the possible EU ban check out http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2012/january/ngos-push-for-eu-plastic-bag-ban/73225.aspx.

Australia's Success Story

In 2009 South Australia put an end to the use of plastic shopping bags. It is estimated that there are 400 million fewer bags in South Australia each year as a result of the ban. South Australia is now leading by example and offering the help the rest of the nation go plastic bag free. What is unique about the southern Aussie approach was that the government worked with retailers, unions, and other groups to design the ban. Care and consideration was taken to make the ban a smooth transition. In other areas where bans have been put into action retailers are usually forces opposed to the ban. By bringing this group into the fold 3 years before the ban was implemented, South Australia has created a success story. To see how South Australia made their ban happen check out http://www.zerowaste.sa.gov.au/plastic-bags. Shoppers from the Northern Territory got on board with the notion of living free from plastic bags and employed their own ban in September of 2011. The environmental implications were the primary issue for the ban. Plastic bags pose serious health risks to marine life. When animals eat plastic bags and other pieces of litter the trash can become lodged and tangled in their digestive system, causing them to die an agonizing and painful death. Removing one-time use plastic bags from the equation lowers the chance of this happening for the short term with the long-term goal of preventing this altogether.

The Virtues of Reusable Shopping Bags

Many groups look at bag bans as a violation of free will and a sneaky move by local governments to charge additional taxes. Consumers who fight or oppose the bans claim that they re-use plastic bags so they are not littering or causing harm to the environment. When plastic bags are used as garbage bags they still end up in garbage dumps. They still collect standing water and they still do not break down in a safe or efficient manner. As long as disposable plastic bags exist there will be litter and the ensuing health issues for both people and animals will continue to mount. Reusable shopping bags save shoppers from paying a tax or fee and are cheaper over the long term. The benefits of reusable bags outweigh the inconvenience of needing to remember to bring the bags when you go shopping and periodically cleaning the bags. It is unfortunate that it has come to enacting laws to protect the health of the environment, wildlife, and even people. It is sad that more people do not choose reusable bags in lieu of plastic bags on their own accord and the governments need to step in to make this happen. Regardless, the positive impact of life without plastic bags is taking root. Communities are cleaner, nicer places to live and wildlife is not put in harm's way.

What is sometimes overlooked is the marketing advantage of reusable bags. When a company imprints their logo on the side of a reusable shopping bag this increases their visibility and brand recognition. The bags may be intended to carry groceries home, but the opportunities to use them are endless. Customers, or rather your unofficial mobile advertising team, may use your bag to carry their lunch to work, or papers home from the office, or use it as a gym or beach bag. Students may use it as a school bag or kids can even use it when they head to a friend's house for a sleepover. A customized reusable bag is a constant marketing tool that people bring into their homes and the places they work and play, and your logo can be put on display the whole time. Aside from getting your logo or a specific branding point noticed, reusable bags also send a more subtle message. They let people know that your company is aware of the environmental hazards of plastic bags and that you are willing to do something about it. Your company is an environmental ally. Even the material your bag is made from can make a statement. RPET bags are made from recycled plastic bottles while bamboo and jute bags are constructed from natural, renewable fibers.

Many consumers see plastic bag bans as a negative, but you can position your company to save the day and distribute eco-friendly reusable bags when shoppers are faced with paying a fee to use plastic bags or buying reusable bags. Taking care of your clients may establish a sense of loyalty and an appreciation for your company within pockets of people who oppose bag bans or those who do not have strong feelings on the issue. Those who already support environmental issues will value and welcome your company's decision to embrace reusable bags and promote sustainability. Either way, reusable bags can be a tremendous marketing tool that will get your company seen.

The topic of banning plastic bags is not going away anytime soon. This worldwide issue can be polarizing, but it can also be an environmental and promotional boon. As cities and countries across the globe grapple with the environmental effects of using plastics bags, and the political impact of banning disposable bags the worldwide community is still at risk and there will continue to be passionate discussions both for and against such bans. The health and environmental issues are many and the simple solution is reusable bags. Reusable bags can find a use for recycled materials and prevent the need and demand of new disposable bags. They are less likely to end up as litter and many reusable bags are biodegradable or recyclable, so we can learn and grow from our experiences with disposable plastic bags.

2 thoughts on “A Global Look at Plastic Bag Bans”

  • Anthony

    City ordinance to ban plastic carry out bags and to charge a fee for a paper carry out bag in order to coerce consumers to switch to reusable bags is simply not a very good idea! Although the reusable bag is touted as friendly to the environment, the bag, on the contrary, is not friendly to the environment based upon the fact the Life Cycle Assessments are incomplete with respect to the reusable bag. Life Cycle Assessment documents fail to address the use of water, energy, and generation of greenhouse gases as a result of the consumer washing the reusable bag on a recurring basis in order to maintain the reusable bag in a sanitary condition.

    The reusable bag presents health issues related to cross contamination of food items, and the reusable bag can serve as a carrier for contagious viruses. To mitigate these health issues, the bag must be washed on a regular basis. Some people dismiss these concerns and say common sense tells you to wash the bag when it is visibly dirty. However, bacteria and viruses are invisible and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Therefore, adopting a regular schedule to wash the bags as a precaution is warranted. Hand washing or machine washing the reusable bag with soap and bleach will kill 99.9% of all bacteria and viruses.

    Hand washing reusable bags consumes less water and energy but is more time consuming then simply tossing reusable bags into the washing machine and dryer. Therefore consumers will switch to the more expensive reusable bags that are machine washable and dryable. Depending upon the type of appliances and water heater, machine washing and drying will cost the consumer between $37 and $76 annually in increased utility bills for washing bags on a weekly basis, and between $9 and $18 annually if bags are washed monthly. Increasing water usage in areas of the country where water is not in plentiful supply is foolish.

    Simply put, sanitary plastic and paper bags are available off-the-shelf! Using water and energy resources to wash reusable bags in order to sanitize them on a recurring basis is a waste of water and energy.

    Reply
    • Shane Shirley-Smith, CMO
      Shane Shirley-Smith, CMO November 13, 2013 at 2:51 am

      Washing bags is such a simple solution to the germs but I do not hear your take on the harm caused to wildlife from single use plastic bags?

      Reply

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