It was during my trip to Taiwan three summers ago when I first encountered the effect of plastic bag laws. In 2003, Taiwan established an environmental levy at the retail level and banned free distribution of light-weight plastic bags . Because of the extra NT$1 fee on a plastic bag, I decided to bring my own reusable bag to carry my groceries. In the past decade, more and more cities around the world have become interested in placing taxes or bans on plastic bags in hope of reducing plastic bag consumption and waste generation. Just last year, following the footsteps of many cities, the City Council in Seattle voted unanimously to ban plastic bags and charge a 5-cent charge on paper bags .
According to the Australian government, “a year’s worth of weekly grocery trips, at 10 bags a trip, would result in embedded energy consumption of 210 megajoules—the equivalent of 1.75 gallons (6.6 liters) of gasoline, and emissions of 13 pounds (6.06 kilograms) of CO2.” It may seem as if plastic bag generation takes up a significant portion of the overall fuel use in the United States. In actuality, the manufacturing of plastics accounts for a mere 5 percent of United States petroleum consumption . However, the waste generated by plastics is an issue that governments have been trying to tackle for many years.
The disposal of plastic bags has been known to be a serious environmental problem. The U.N. Environmental Programme reported that plastic has threatened the lives of as many as 260 animal species. The careless disposal of plastic bags has even choked up storm drains causing deadly flooding in India and Bangladesh . It is no wonder that more and more countries are seeking ways to reduce the use of plastic bags. In addition, it seems like governments are able to pass plastic laws more easily than making dramatic changes in energy and climate change policy.
It is surprising to see how much of an impact plastic bag taxes make in a city. In March 2007, after passing a ban on plastic bags in San Francisco, 5 million fewer plastic bags were used every month . After imposing a 5-cent charge on plastic and paper shopping bags in Washington, D.C. in 2010, residents reduced the usage of 22.5 million bags per month to 4.6 million per month, which is an 80 percent drop. Similar results happened in Ireland when they implemented 0.15 euro per bag in March 2002. The average rate of using 328 plastic bags per person per year to 21 bags was a dramatic change .
But do these laws really bring significant energy and environmental benefits? The plastic industry stands firmly on the side that says “no.” Plastic bag laws have been widely debated topics for many years. The industry says that in fact, banning the use of plastic bags would decrease the society’s plastic recycling rate. Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at the American Chemistry Council, says that there would be less collection sites for recycling plastics . I disagree with his point. These laws would not have a negative impact on recycling because our society today is only becoming greener. We will continue to seek improved ways of recycling plastics. Another point the plastic industry brings up is that these taxes will force the society to use more paper bags, which would increase energy consumption (since paper bags require more energy to manufacture compared to plastic bags) . I think this can be avoided if the government places a tax not only on plastic bags, but also on paper bags. Only an added light fee on plastic bags is necessary. A plastic law similar to Washington, D.C.’s recent law would be enough to make us stop and think. We need something to remind us to sparingly use plastic bags and to bring our own reusable bags for groceries.