Tackling a Worldwide Problem
Breaking the plastic bag habit is not just a USA phenomenon. In fact, many countries worldwide enacted laws to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic bags long before cities and states within the USA began to do so. While approaches may vary, all acting governments have the common goal of changing the entrenched consumer habit of using plastic bags.
Throughout the world discarded plastic bags have entered drainage systems, clogged pipes, and exacerbated flooding. These littered totes have ended up in our rivers and seas and have had devastating consequences for marine life. Numerous reports of dolphins and whales perishing from the consumption of plastic bags have caught the attention of governments worldwide. According to advocacy.britannica.com, ÒÉat least 100,000 mammals and birds die from the estimated 500 billion plastic bags that are produced and consumed around the world annually. The number of fish killed is unknown, but is sure to number in the millionsÓ. While statistics often vary by source, I believe the 500 billion to be a very conservative number. Sources like the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, have stated that China uses 3 billion plastic bags bags daily. No matter which source is closer to the truth, the truth is there are just too many disposable, plastic shopping bags!
Since early 2002, Ireland (the first European nation to take action against plastic bags) has imposed a tax for plastic bags used to carry most goods. The revenue collected from the plastic bag tax program is used to fuel a special environmental fund that supports environmental projects, improves recycling centers, steps up enforcement, and conducts environmental awareness campaigns. Initially, IrelandÕs 15¢ euro-cent levy (21 US dollar-cents) per bag reduced estimated annual usage from 1.2 billion bags to 85 million bags, about a 93% reduction! Unfortunately, overtime consumers started to accept the tax burden and began to use more plastic bags; just 3 years later, plastic bag usage rose 35% to 115 million bags. (This is still a far cry below the former 1.2 billion). In 2007, to curb the renewed growth trend, Ireland raised the levy 46% to 22¢ euro-cents (31 US dollar-cents) for each bag used. In just 4 months after increasing the levy, consumption of plastic bags dropped in Ireland by 20%. It appears that taxation is effective in reducing the demand for plastic shopping bags. According to the Irish Department of The Environment, Heritage, and Local Government, from 2002 through 2006, the plastic bags levy has brought in revenues totaling Û55 MM euro ($ USD 78 MM) . So what did Irish shoppers replace their plastic bags with? 90% switched to reusable Òlong lifeÓ bags, 6% now use cardboard boxes, 4% continue to buy plastic bags (shame on them!), and 1% use other methods- I suppose Òother methodsÓ even includes simply carrying the purchased goods in your arms!
In mid- 2008, China banned the use of ultra-thin plastic bags and the issue of free thicker plastic bags from supermarkets, shops, and open markets. To enforce the mandate, ChinaÕs law (which includes the manufacture of thin plastic bags) imposes fines and confiscation of profit. Offenders of the law can be fined as much as 10,000 Yuan ($USD 1,465). To put this in perspective, The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics stated the 2007 annual per capita disposable income of urban residents was 13,786 Yuan ($USD 1,907) with rural net income at 4,140 Yuan ($USD 572.50) Given Chinese income statistics, the fines for offering plastic bags to customers can be hefty for a Chinese shop keeper! According to Now Public, after the law was in effect, the number of plastic bags given out in grocery stores fell by 40 billion. With just one year into the program, Chinese super markets have used 66% fewer bags with large international retailers like Wal-Mart reducing the usage in China by as high as 80%. With ChinaÕs program in place for just a little over a year, it will be interesting to see how it progresses.
In May 2009, South Australia banned shops from providing thin, single-use plastic shopping bags. The only state in Australia to ban these bags estimates it will eliminate 400 million bags annually. As a nation, Australia uses 4 billion plastic bags a year; South Australia alone is reducing usage by 10%. With lots of attention on the new ban, other states in Australia hope to implement similar legislation.
The countries mentioned above are just a few of the many which are considering or have implemented legislation to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic shopping bags. The United Kingdom, Russia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, India, and Korea are others which have recognized the need to take action. This worldwide consciousness has drawn attention from The United Nations where the executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), Achim Steiner said, ÒPlastic bags, which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly.Ó
Every time I find it more convenient to throw out a plastic bag rather than recycle it, I just have to picture some marine mammal like a big-eyed harbor seal choking from having ingested a discarded plastic shopping bag. This cures my Òurge to purgeÓ and I collect. Depositing my collected plastic bags in the local grocerÕs plastic bag recycling bin makes me feel like I am preserving not only our environment, but our wildlife; saving one animal, one bag at a time.
Given the options, I think the recycling of plastic bags makes good sense. I know that opting out when offered a plastic bag makes even better sense. Too many times when making a purchase IÕve been offered a plastic shopping bag when I really donÕt need it. Honestly, do you really need a plastic bag for a pack of gum? To make my effort even greener, I am beginning to take reusable shopping bags seriously. For 99¢ my grocer offers these sturdy shopping totes made from recycled polypropylene plastic. Reusable shopping bags will definitely reduce the amount of plastic bags I am bringing home. To even make the Òpot sweeterÓ, the same retailer gives me 3¢ for each reusable bag I bring to the store to pack my groceries in. Hey, itÕs like receiving a paperless coupon, now thatÕs really environmental!!
The trick will be to train myself to remember to bring the reusable bags with me when I go shopping!
© 2009 Recycle Life, LLC
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References for this article were obtained from:
www.epa.gov, www.icis.com, www.msbc.com,www.planetark.org ,www.science.jrank.org, www.aza.org, www.slate.com, www.toronto.ca ,www.environ.ie ,www.mindfully.org