Tackling The Plastic Bag Problem Around The World

The Bangladesh Jute industry has bounced back due to the plastic bag ban – Image from http://www.hello.news352.lu

A wise man once said “with great power comes great responsibility”. I believe that man was Spiderman? Never mind – the point is that thought-provoking little hybrid got me thinking about Australia. We really are ‘the lucky country’ sitting pretty on the comparative global scale. Sure, we complain about drought but last year more than 29,000 children under age 5 died in 90 days in southern Somalia. We complain about ignorant politicians but despite my loathing of his attitudes (and taste in swimwear) I still prefer Abbott to the likes of Gaddafi, Mugabe or al-Assad. We complain about the rising price of groceries while 75,000 people die every day from starvation. We are unbelievably privileged.

‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’

Donald Horne, The Lucky County, 1964

This fortunate position should inspire Australia to become leaders in technologies, ideas and attitudes that will help the planet, yet sadly we are lagging behind. A prime example is the great plastic bag debate. Why are we not employing a bit of forethought and banning plastic bags like many countries (developed and developing) around the world are? South Australia and now the Australian Capital Territory have led the charge but we need to do more. Clean Up Australia says that Australians use in excess of 6 billion plastic bags per year. It isn’t good enough.

Maybe we can take some inspiration from other countries around the world that are reducing (or have already significantly reduced) their plastic appetite…

Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Jute industry has bounced back due to the plastic bag ban – Image from http://www.hello.news352.lu

As I explained in my post about the effects of plastic, in 1988 and 1998 plastic bags were determined the main cause of devastating floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. In 2002 Bangladesh was the first large country to impose an outright ban of the use of polyethylene bags. Not only was there a significant reduction in plastic pollution but it also revived sustainable industries which have biodegradable alternatives such as the Jute Bag industry.

Italy

Italy used to be responsible for 25% of all the plastic bags in Europe which equates to roughly 25 billion a year.  As of January 1st 2011 single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags were outlawed. Retailers – predictably – warned of pandemonium at the checkouts but evidently people have survived. Maybe the customers were smarter than the retailers thought and noticed those wonderful appendages at the end of their arms that can be used for carrying things?

South Africa

SA really came to the table! Not only did they ban the use of thin plastic bags in 2003  but also imposed a 100,000 rand ($12020AUD) fine and a 10-year jail sentence for any retailers caught handing out bags! This has encouraged shoppers to either take their own sustainable carry bags or invest in plastic bags that can be used more than once.

More information can be found at the BBC South Africa bans plastic bags.

Ireland

This is my favourite example of plastic bag reduction because (to me) it absolutely typifies the flippant Western attitude towards plastic bags. In May 2002 Ireland placed a 15 euro-cent (25cAUD) levy on supermarket checkout bags. Within 3 months Ireland had cut its plastic usage by 90%. There was a 95% decrease in plastic bag litter. This model has been so successful that the Department of Environment (Department of The Environment, Ireland ) have since increased the levy to 22euro-cents. The health of the planets oceans, animals, people and atmosphere proved to be worth less than 15cents. I guess the ends justify the means?

China

More than 1.3billion people live in China. If they had not recognised the danger of plastic the results would be catastrophic.  It has been estimated that 37 million barrels of crude oil are used to produce China’s annual supply of plastic bags – 3 billion every year! In June 2008 (before the Olympics) the Chinese State Council put a nationwide ban on plastic bags. It prohibited all shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from handing out free plastic bags and banned the production, sale, and use of ultra-thin plastic bags less than 0.025mm thick.  Since the ban China has reduced its bag consumption by half which saves 1.6million ton of oil! Looks like the red is greener than the green and gold! ()

India

Similar to Bangladesh, India also had severe flooding and landslides due to plastic bags blocking drain systems during monsoon season. Many cows also died after mistakenly ingesting the plastic bags. A ban was imposed banning the manufacture, sale and use of all plastic bags.

New Zealand

Our Kiwi kinsman used to have an impressive appetite for plastic consuming 1 billion bags per year. A five-year initiative (the New Zealand Packaging Accord 2004 – 2009) was introduced to attempt to reduce plastic bag usage by a fifth. While they still have a way to go AC Nielsen data shows that consumers are now taking on average 5.8 bags down from twelve months earlier (6.5 bags). It sounds measly but actually equates to 100million less bags!

Europe

Similar to some companies in Australia (Officeworks for one) a select few countries throughout Europe have decided to take matters into their own hands. Instead of waiting for government legislation to force their hands, most retailers in Germany, Switzerland and Denmark charge for plastic bags at the check-out.

Kenya

The late, great Professor Wangari Mathaai – Image from http://www.elleafriquemagazine.wordpress.com

Last year Kenya (and indeed the world) lost an amazing woman – Professor Wangari Mathaai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.  Before she died Mathaai had spoken out about the effect that plastic bags were having, not only in Kenya but all across Africa. Discarded plastic bags were filling up with rainwater and were becoming perfect little pools for mosquitos to breed in which caused a dramatic rise in vector-borne diseases such as malaria. In early 2005 the Kenyan government (with the help of UNEP and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis) imposed a ban on thin plastic bags as well as placing a levy on the heavier varieties. Any money raised is put towards recycling schemes.

San Francisco

In 2007 San Francisco became the first state in the USA to ban the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. Biodegradable bags made from materials such as paper or corn by-prodcuts are allowed. Just two years after the ban was imposed San Fran saw a reduction of 18%.

USA

Around the US many towns, cities and sometimes entire states are taking note of the dangers of prolific plastic bag use. In January 2010 bans were placed in the following counties – Brownsville, Texas and Kauai (Hawaii). While a complete ban was overthrown in Californies various Cali cities agreed to it (Malibu, Fairfax and Palo Alto). Other notable cities were Bethel (Alaska), Edmonds (Washington) and Westport (Connecticut). Slowly, slowly America is starting to act on their 100billion bag a year habit.

Last and… well, probably least… Australia!

South Australia – as always – are leading the plastic free charge. In 2009 a ban was placed on all lightweight shopping bags. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at UniSA has reported that before the ban six in ten shoppers would take their own reusable bags to the shops, which has now risen to nine in ten! What a fantastic success. The Northern Territory and the ACT are now also taking steps to reduce their consumption. The ACT are trialed a four-month transitional ban (July – November 2011) and is now in full effect after getting a great result from an environmental perspective as well as from consumer attitudes.

The is more information about the South Australian plastic bag ban here.

What are we waiting for?

The above list is just a small selection of forward thinking countries that are fighting the war on plastic. Honourable mentions go to Bhutan, Cameroon, Eritrea, Brazil, Canada, France, Holland and Nepal. We really have no excuse not to act. Beyond that it is our responsibility  to act.

If the government fails to act then there are always steps that you can take, at an individual level or within your community, to make a difference. Tomorrow I will upload my post on reducing plastic in your life. If you want to learn more about the issues, here are some fantastic resources;

8 thoughts on “Tackling The Plastic Bag Problem Around The World

  1. Eep! Rwanda also has a plastic bag ban and anyone entering the country will have their bags searched, not for drugs, but for a little sliver of pollution waiting to happen! (I’m not sure what happens if they find drugs as well).

    I’m not quite sure how effective Kenya’s bag ban/levy has been, when I was living in Kenya in 2009/10 there were an awful lot of thin film PE bags going around, and I wasn’t even aware of the ban! They were generally referred to by people as ‘paper’, perhaps the ban is why? Hmmm

    • Wow, Rwanda is hardcore. That is sad to hear about Kenya. I had heard rumours that there were bans or levy’s in Indonesia but also couldn’t believe it was true while I traveled around it.

      There are definitely some contentious issues regarding better use (including banned use) of plastic bags. I have seen arguments that the San Francisco ban led to increased demand in paper bags (which uses more energy to produce). There is also mention of plastic bags being readily available to buy instore – which will always elude the bans. And then – as you have mentioned – then there is the case of monitoring whatever policies are put in place.

      I think at the end of it all there is a common denominator that undermines every single argument. Regardless of what material costs more, or how many emissions recycling the bags emits – single use items need to be a thing of the past. That is the big issue.

      What do you think?

      • True that! It is incredibly difficult to completely cut out single use items though. I see them everywhere, even in my beloved bottles of wine! Hmmm… Swords Select (do you have something similar in Perth?) and homebrew seem to be the only way around that..

        I’ve been thinking about paper vs plastic bags and I’m not sure that embodied energy tells much of the story in that fight. Paper bags are made from renewable resources and have a far smaller and shorter impact on the environment than plastic – even with the extra energy involved I’d rather paper bags than plastic! Even better though is to take your own reusable bag! :)

  2. Sadly, the United States, outside of California, has got such a long way to go. I use (and re-use) my own bags, but it takes effort as cashiers are all too quick to bag (and double bag!) items, even if you only buy one thing. I very rarely see anyone else using their own bags when shopping in my east coast town. Our council rubbish collections tell the story of the outrageous amounts of waste – we have twice weekly rubbish collection (as many bins as you like), but only fortnightly recycling.

    On the brighter side, it’s fantastic to see towns, cities and countries around the world imposing the bans without the predicted catastrophic effects.

  3. Pingback: Just Because You Can’t See It… | Olive on Blonde

  4. Ooops! I take it all back. One of my employers (I’m greedy and have 3) has told me that the good ol’ paper bag is actually more resource intensive (long term) than a plastic bag. There are lots of reasons for this, paper bags are heavier (thus have more materials), are made using water intensive processes and consume lots of energy to make. Apparently plastic isn’t the biggest evil of evils. Just a little evil.

  5. Pingback: We Did It!!! Plastic Free July Is Over. | Olive on Blonde

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