Plastic Bag Laws Spread Across the World

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [3]. 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 [5]. 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 [3].

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 [2]. 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) [4]. 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.









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3 responses to “Plastic Bag Laws Spread Across the World

  1. kelly0591

    When I was in high school, I worked at a chain grocery store as a cashier/grocery bagger. One thing that bothers me so much is the unregulated use of plastic bags. I feel that if they impose some rules to employees regarding to plastic bags usage, the company will save tremendous amount of money, but also making a great contribution to environmental protection.

    Through out 2 years working at the store, I realized the significant quality changes of the plastic bags that the store have been using. The bags were firm and durable when I started, later they became to thin and fragile, I guess the company was trying to reduce some money on plastic bags. But they didn’t notice that because of the bad quality bags, customers were more frequently to ask for double bag groceries or put fewer items in each bag. Turn out — more bags were used!

    What I think funny is that some customers were really try to “protect” the environment, they usually ask to use paper bags instead of plastics, and they will say how bad plastic bags are as a consumer waste. But in reality, are paper bags really environmental friendly? — NO!, as you mentioned in the blog, paper bangs “would increase energy consumption (since paper bags require more energy to manufacture compared to plastic bags)”.

    Unfortunately, only few cities of U.S. are enforcing plastic bag laws. I think that the most effective way to ban plastic bags is that government should issue a fund to every family for reusable shopping bag purchase. The reusable bags cost about $1 for each, which is not an expensive item. It is much stronger, holds more volume and weight, also has better insulation!

  2. guillermo125

    I also encountered this issue when I was in Sweden. At super markets there was an extra charge when ask for plastic bags, but also for paper bags. So there was a charge for any type of bag. The amount of people that carry their own bags was substantially large. My question for all this is what happens to the extra money paid for the bags? Is it just extra profit for the super market? Does this money go to some recycling company? Are they taxes? I can see how extra charges are a prevention for people to continue the use of some products for example tobacco taxes.
    Maybe plastic bags will eventually have a tax on them that will prevent consumers to use them, but what is the future? An extra charge on everything that affects the environment?

  3. selmster

    I definitely agree with the poster that these taxes should be applied on paper bags as well as plastic bags. I think plastic bags unrightfully face more scrutiny than paper bags. Banning and taxing plastic bags only feeds into this myth that paper bags are a better choice, when in fact the process of making paper bags includes clear-cutting of forests, use of thousands of gallons of water, and much higher transportation emissions. [1] Plastic bags also produce less solid waste (74-80% less than paper at zero percent recycling), atmospheric emissions (63-73% less than paper at zero percent recycling), and waterborne wastes (90% less than paper at zero percent recycling) than paper bags. (Plastic bags continue to contribute less solid waste, atmospheric emissions, and waterborne waste at all recycling rates.) [2]

    Plastic bags require 20-40% less energy in their “life cycle” (from the point of raw materials extraction through manufacturing, use, and disposal) than paper bags do assuming zero percent recycling. [2] Actually it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does to recycle a pound of paper. [3] The biodegradability factor seems to be a point brought up often; however, the biodegradability of paper bags which end up in a landfill is questionable due to the lack of oxygen.

    Also, at least from my personal experience, many plastic bags are re-used as trash bags before being thrown out. Paper bags are not nearly as useful for this task as even small amounts of liquids in your trash will cause the bag to fall apart.

    Overall the best choice is using reusable canvas bags for groceries and if there is a tax on plastic bags, there should be one on paper bags as well.



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