Understanding Plastic Bag Bans & Usage Around the World

Every year, one trillion plastic bags – single use – are used, equating to 2 million per minute. Different countries have different usage levels, but the entire world has to commit to reducing this usage. A plastic bag is made from depletable resources, yet almost never breaks down.

The average plastic grocery store bag or takeout bag has an approximate 12-minute lifespan. After being tossed out, they clog storm drains and sewage, degenerate into toxic microplastics that fester for up to 1,000 years in our landfills and oceans.

Shoppers, as a whole, use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags each year, equating to 150 bags per individual, per year for each person on this plant — or enough to circle the planet 4,200 times.

Carl Heastie, New York Assembly speaker, told the Associated Press, “The convenience of plastic bags isn’t worth the impact they have on the environment. By decreasing the state’s usage, there will be less plastic pollution in the waterways and less litter in the communities.”

Often described as the number one consumer product in the world, and the most ubiquitous, plastic shopping bags are now among the “most-banned” of the world. The United Nations, as of last July, counted 127 nations that taxed or banned plastic bags and bag regulations have grown so rapidly, particularly at the local level, that even a terrorist group, backed by Al-Qaeda, joined in and banned plastic bags because they considered them a serious threat to both humans’ and animals’ well-being.

To curb the consumption and production of plastic bags, in the year 2008, the Government of China:

  • Placed a ban on plastic bags thinner than 25 microns
  • Placed a levy on thicker plastic bags
  • Promoted the use of shopping baskets and cloth bags

There were exemptions for bags used to handle fresh food like noodles and raw meat for hygiene reasons.

A year following the introduction of the legislation, plastic bag distribution in grocery stores fell on average by 70 percent, which avoided the use of 40 billion plastic bags. Within seven years, the number of bags used by shopping malls and supermarkets shrank by two-thirds, avoiding 1.4 million tons of bags. But, plastic bags do stay common, particularly in farmers’ markets and rural areas because of weak enforcement.

In January 2018, China introduced a ban on the plastic scraps import. The ban’s impact on the global plastic recycling industry hasn’t been estimated yet.

State legislatures have taken a number of measures into consideration for reducing the prevalence of plastic bags at supermarkets and other businesses.

Why Ban Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags are terrible for the economy and the environment. Reducing the use of bags can mitigate harsh impacts to:

  • Rivers
  • Oceans
  • Forests
  • Lakes
  • Wildlife

It could also relieve pressure on waste management and landfills. While plastic bags, in theory, are recyclable, they’re not in practice.

Straws, plastic bags and tiny plastic pieces known as microplastics collect in huge ocean garbage patches, the biggest of which is referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the widening gyre). This trash-filled vortex is over twice the size of Texas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains over 1.8 trillion floating plastic pieces or around 250 pieces of debris for each individual on the planet.

A pregnant sperm whale recently washed up on the Sardinia shores dead with almost 50 pounds of plastic in its belly. Another dead whale was found less than a month earlier due to ingesting 88 pounds of plastic.

If plastic enters the food chain, it can threaten human health. There are many ways plastic can enter the food chain, for instance, plastic is broken down and winds up in the ocean as well as the marine animals we eat. According to a small pilot study, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in peoples’ waste in Russia, Europe and Japan. Water bodies contaminated with plastic and its byproducts is a huge hazard to the environment, according to the UN.

Since most recycling is single stream, the way recyclable objects are gathered together, plastic bags are processed along with stronger objects like:

  • Metal cans
  • Glass jars
  • Paper goods

Plastic bags can become tangled in the machinery, often leading to the machines breaking down.

The remaining majority of the plastic bags not making it into the recycling bin lead to hazardous landfill and incinerator emissions or wind up as litter on the streets, in the parks or in the oceans and rivers.

Each year, 100,000 marine creatures die because of plastic entanglement. Around one million sea birds also die because of plastic.

Here are only a few ways plastic bags harm our environment and our wallets:

  • Plastic packaging clogs city sewer systems, which leads to flooding. Leftover plastic goods create a breeding ground for mosquitoes and could leach toxic additives like benzene and styrene as they decompose.
  • Plastic bags wind up in landfills, where they’re either burned in incinerators or buried. Towns, cities and businesses pay around $80 a ton for this.
  • Plastic bags are dangerous to the oceans and the creatures that live in them. Fish and other marine life will eat plastic bags because they think they’re food. One study found a quarter of all fish sold in grocery stores contain some type of plastic debris. As plastic breaks down into small particles, it displaces plankton, the primary food source for whales and other large marine mammals.
  • Plastic bags aren’t free. The bags are paid for by the retailers and the cost is passed on to consumers. Four billion is collected each year in profits by the plastic bag industry from U.S. retailers.

Bans and Fees

Eight states have a ban on single-use plastic bags. These states are:

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Hawaii
  • Vermont
  • Oregon
  • New York

California

California was the first state in August 2014 to impose a ban statewide on large retail store single-use plastic bags. The bill also demanded a minimum charge of 10 cents at certain locations for:

  • Reusable plastic bags
  • Recycled paper bags
  • Compostable bags

The ban was to go into effect on July 1, 2015, however, a referendum forced the problem onto the ballot in the election on November 2016. With 52 percent of the vote, Proposition 67 was passed which means the Legislature-approved plastic bag ban remains the law.

New York

New York was the third state to place a ban in 2019 on plastic bags. Effective March 2020, the law will apply to most grocery stores and other retailers single-use plastic bags. Bags distributed at the bulk food section and meat or deli counter are exempt, along with:

  • Trash bags
  • Newspaper bags
  • Restaurant takeout bags
  • Pharmaceutical prescription drug bags
  • Garment bags

The law allows counties the choice of charging a five-cent fee on paper bags with three cents going to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and two cents will go to local governments.

Hawaii

Hawaii has a statewide ban in effect since all of its large counties prohibit the use of checkout non-biodegradable plastic bags along with paper bags that contain less than 40 percent of recyclable material. Bans in Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties took effect through the years 2011 and 2013. Honolulu became the last big county in 2015 to approve the ban.

In 2019, five other different states enacted legislation:

  • Delaware
  • Connecticut
  • Oregon
  • Maine
  • Vermont

Along with plastic bags, there were also restrictions placed through Vermont’s SB 113 on single-use straws and polystyrene containers.

The District of Columbia, in 2009, enacted legislation that required all businesses selling alcohol or food to charge five cents for each plastic or carryout paper bag.

Around 112 states, countries and cities worldwide have already imposed a ban on a variety of single-use plastic items. Of these measures, 25 are in Africa and 57 are national. And the restrictions list continues growing.

Tackling Land-Based Plastic Pollution

Plastic bag bans have brought on bans of other plastic items, including:

  • Cups
  • Plates
  • Bottles
  • Straws

This is part of an expanding effort for reducing single-use plastics that makeup around 40 percent of the plastics manufactured all over the world. But, whether or not bans can substantially reduce plastic waste, which eight million tons of it leaks into the oceans each year, remains to be seen, particularly when you consider that the production of plastic is forecast to double by 2040 and might account for 20 percent of the oil production in the world by 2050.

In the early 2000s, countries started to experiment with different measures of reducing plastic bag dependency and the most common is putting a limit on their free distribution in retail stores. These measures could be extremely effective. Australia reported recently its slow plastic bag ban led to an 80 percent decrease of use. Around 27 countries have placed a tax on plastic bag production and 30 charge their consumers a fee if they wish to use plastic bags.

Another way countries have tried addressing plastic waste pileup is by offering payments for plastic items returned. Twenty-three countries, mostly in the Pacific Islands and Europe, have established rebate schemes or plastic collections centers that enable individuals to earn small amounts of money by returning their plastic items. This strategy also helps countries with their plastic recycling targets and about 26 countries have implemented this strategy.

In some countries, individuals face jail time if they use plastic bags.

Why Plastic Pollution Continues

One reason plastic pollution is still ongoing is because plastic bag regulation is very uneven worldwide and there are many loopholes that exist. Other reasons why regulations for plastic bags aren’t yet efficient in slowing ocean pollution down are:

1. Many Countries don’t Regulate Plastic throughout its Lifecycle

Not many countries regulate the whole lifecycle of plastic bags — from production and manufacturing, distribution and use to disposal and trade. There are only 55 countries that comprehensively restrict retail plastic bag distribution together with restrictions on:

  • Production
  • Manufacturing
  • Imports

The rest include inadequacies which may fail to curb plastic pollution overall. For instance, China bans the importation of plastic bags and demands retailers charge their customers for bags, but doesn’t explicitly restrict plastic bag production or exportation. EI Salvador, Guyana and Ecuador only regulate plastic bag disposal, but not their production, importation and retail use.

2. Countries Prefer Partial Bans

Eighty-nine countries favored partial bans or plastic bag restrictions over full bans. The partial bans include bag composition or thickness requirements. They regulate a range of biodegradability and thicknesses requirements. For instance, India, France, Madagascar, Italy and a few other countries don’t completely ban plastic bags, but instead, they tax or ban plastic bags that’s thickness is less than 50 microns.

3. Hardly Any Countries Restrict Manufacturing or Production of Plastic Bags

Manufacture volume limitations are the least used regulatory strategy. There is only one country that includes an explicit limit on production — Cape Verde. The country imposed a percentage reduction on the production of plastic bags, beginning in 2015 at 60 percent and growing in 2016 to 100 percent when it put into force its full ban.

4) There are Numerous Exemptions

Of 91 countries with bans on plastic bags, twenty-five include exemptions; some have several exemptions. For instance, cambodia exempts the import of smaller volumes of plastic bags from its ban for non-commercial reasons. Fourteen African countries have clear plastic bag ban exemptions. Exemptions might relate to certain products or activities. Common exemptions are:

  • The handling and transporting of fresh food and perishable items
  • Use for medical or scientific research
  • Carrying small retail items
  • Waste or garbage disposal or storage
  • Plastic bags for national security (duty-free and airport bags), export or agricultural uses

5. Incentives Aren’t Offered for Single-Use Plastic Bag Alternatives

Governments frequently fail to offer subsidies for bags you can reuse. They also don’t require recycled content usage in biodegradable or recycled rpet plastic bags. Only 16 countries had rules for the use of plastic alternatives or reusable grocery bags, like plant-based material made bags.

Single-use plastic land-based pollution is a gradual-onset disaster demanding a global response. One attractive strategy is to pursue a law binding phase-out on a global level of most single-use plastics. This approach could help build on existing municipal and national efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and could create opportunities for small and medium-sized companies to develop more benign alternatives.

Douglas Lober

Author: Douglas Lober

Douglas Lober grew up in Southern California and is an environmentalist at heart. He donates his time and finances to helping children better understand how they can become fine stewards of the Earth. He is he co-Founder and Chief Sales Professional at Reusethisbag.com with over 15 years experience as an overseas importer and exporter of fine eco-friendly promotional items.

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