As awareness increases worldwide of the problems posed by the use of plastic bags, local and national governments are beginning to take steps toward eliminating their use. Some have instituted taxes on plastic bags, and some have already banned them altogether. Countries that have begun to institute policies which discourage or eliminate the use of disposable bags include the western nations of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Australia and the United States; eastern countries such as China, Bhutan, India, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Singapore; and the African nations of Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Somaliland, Rwanda and South Africa. Shoppers around the world are now carrying reusable shopping bags, and savvy store owners have gotten in on the action by selling their own branded reusable bags next to the checkouts.
An inventive program in Ireland called the “PlasTax” taxes shoppers who opt for plastic bags, and it has resulted in a whopping 90% decline in the use of plastic bags since the program began in 2002. Translated into units, this equals 1 billion fewer plastic bags put into circulation each year. Under the program, the money collected by taxing the plastic bags already serves a green purpose: funding environmental initiatives. The PlasTax has been so successful that other governments have followed suit, making the use of reusable shopping bags the norm and plastic bags the exception.
In some countries, laws regulating the thickness of bags have been put in place, such as in China. In order to combat litter and petroleum waste, that country’s state council banned the use of bags thinner than 24/1000th of a millimeter. The Chinese government also requires that retailers charge for thicker bags. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, all polyethylene bags are outlawed in both their production and use, and those caught carrying them could be imprisoned for up to seven years or given a fine of $2000. In 2003, Indian politicians proclaimed that the bags interfere with the health of the soil and create unsightly litter. Outright bans have also been favored in Paris, San Francisco, England, Australia, Singapore and Bangladesh.
San Francisco’s recent ban on plastic bags prohibits large grocery stores and chain pharmacies from using plastic shopping bags. Paper bags and biodegradable bags have taken their place, and the use of reusable bags is promoted. Other cities considering bans include Austin, Annapolis, Bakersfield, Boston, New Haven, and Phoenix. While some see these bans as positive in that overall pollution is reduced by keeping non-biodegradable waste out of the ecosystem and CO2 emissions from their production out of the air, others argue that the bans do not considerably affect the amount of disposable bags in use, be they paper bags or compostable ones, both of which have their environmental downsides. It is important to understand that San Francisco’s ban, while it is a start, is really only a uncompletely ban. Thousands of small businesses will continue to be allowed to spread plastic bags of any sort. All in all, consumers themselves have the most strength to effect a change by simply shopping with their own reusable bags.