In San Francisco, large grocery stores are no longer allowed to give out the disposable, non-biodegradable plastic bags that have formed a giant patch of plastic (twice the size of Texas) in the Pacific Ocean and caused a host of other problems. The Whole Foods supermarket chain will halt plastic-bag distribution on Earth Day this year, and China’s ban on plastic bags will take effect on June 1.
In light of China’s actions, the Guardian looked at other countries that have taken steps to ban or limit the distribution of plastic bags:
At least 40 countries, states and major cities have imposed, or are considering, bans. According to the UN environment programme based in Nairobi, the plastic problem is now “on the agenda of almost every African country”. Rwanda and Eritrea have banned the bags outright; Tanzania has stopped all imports as well as the manufacture of bags, and flimsy plastic drinking water containers; Kenya is in the process of prohibiting them and South Africa, which once produced 7bn bags a year, has prohibited bags thinner than 30 microns (one micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre). In many cases the bans have not proved effective. A ban on the use of thin plastic bags in Uganda has been widely ignored.The growing global rejection of the bag is now reaching some of the remotest parts of the world. Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, Zanzibar and Botswana have all banned bags and introduced taxes. At least six Indian states, including Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, have bans or are considering them.
Densely populated Taiwan, which is running out of landfill space, has not only banned bags but has stopped fast food restaurants and supermarkets issuing plastic knives, forks and cups. The local plastics industry, which has been producing 20bn bags a year, says it expects to see 50,000 jobs lost.
Attitudes are now changing fast in industrialised countries. Ireland took the lead in Europe in 2002 with a tax, Australia is planning to impose a federal ban this year, and San Francisco and Oakland in California are forcing shops to use bags made of at least 40% high-grade recycled paper. This week New York passed a law forcing large stores to provide bins for recycling plastic bags. Meanwhile the 33 London councils are planning to introduce a law banning the ultra thin, single-use bags next year and imposing a tax on others.
It will be a long time before we clear plastic bags out of the waterways, tree limbs, and other parts of the landscape where they’ve become ubiquitous — and hundreds of years before the millions of bags clogging landfills degrade. Decreasing the rate at which we use this unnecessary item will slow the rate at which the problem gets worse.
Enforcement problems are to be expected, but each jurisdiction that bans bags reminds its residents that there’s no reason to expect that every purchase come with a disposable bag — especially when the environmental cost of the habit is so high.