EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Plan B Updates
May 01, 2014
The Downfall of the Plastic Bag: A Global Picture
Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova

Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.

Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, it is a curse, allowing for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife, and sully vistas. Filled with additives that lack a safety record, plastics have been linked with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolizes the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.

Given the multitude of problems associated with plastic bags, many communities around the world have attempted to free themselves from their addictions by implementing bag bans or fees. The oldest existing bag tax is in Denmark. Passed in 1993, this regulation affected plastic bag makers who paid a tax based on the bag's weight. Stores were allowed to pass the cost on to consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The initial effect of this system was an impressive 60 percent drop in plastic bag use.

One of the most well-known bag measures is Ireland’s national bag tax, adopted in 2002. It was the first to charge consumers directly, starting at a rate of 15 euro cents (20ȼ) per bag. Within five months of the measure's introduction, bag usage fell by over 90 percent.  Litter was greatly reduced as well. Over the years, bag use started to creep up, however, so in 2007 the charge was increased to 22 euro cents, and in 2011 the law was amended with the aim of keeping annual bag use at or below 21 bags per person. Frank Convery of University College Dublin calls Ireland’s plastic bag levy “the most popular tax in Europe” and believes that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

Indeed, many communities looking at plastic bag reduction measures hope to emulate the Irish success. Other European countries where consumers pay for plastic shopping bags—either through law or voluntary initiatives—include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Throughout the European Union, member states will soon be required to take measures to reduce plastic bag use 80 percent by 2019.

International Plastic Bag Laws Map

(Click for a live map)

Reducing the amount of plastics in the marine environment has been a major driver of bag regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In a memo on its bag reduction proposal, the European Commission notes that “in the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic. Plastic bags have been found in stomachs of several endangered marine species, such as green turtles, loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles, black footed albatrosses, and harbour porpoises.” In sum, “at least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.” The desire to protect the whales that migrate off the coast of Tasmania led to Australia’s first local plastic bag ban in 2003. Now half of Australian states and territories ban plastic bags.

Beyond the seas, the reasons for taking action against plastic bags vary from malaria outbreaks associated with bags collecting water in Kenya to sewers clogged with plastic bags exacerbating flooding in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and the Philippines. Cattle choking on plastic bags gave impetus for bag regulations in Texas ranch country and in Indian communities concerned about the sacred cow. In the capital of Mauritania, an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths are from plastic bag ingestion; in the United Arab Emirates, the concern is for camels.

The world’s strictest anti-plastic bag implementation strategy may be in Rwanda. Since a ban went into effect in 2008, airline passengers arriving from outside the country have recounted being forced to surrender plastic bags on arrival. It is unclear, however, how successful the ban is at reducing overall bag use, particularly in less urban areas, because of an active black market for plastic bags. In South Africa, where plastic bags caught in bushes and trees had become so common that they were called the national flower, a ban on the very thin non-biodegradable bags that tear readily and easily blow away went into effect in 2003. Thicker bags are taxed. Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers. All told, at least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.

In China, where plastic bag pollution was widespread, a few cities and provinces tried to introduce policies to limit bag use in the 1990s, but poor enforcement led to limited success. Before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, a national law went into effect banning extra thin bags and requiring stores to charge a fee for thicker bags. The Chinese government reported that bag use has dropped by more than two thirds, although compliance appears to be spotty. A number of cities in Southeast Asia, the source of many of the world’s plastic bag exports, have come up with legislation to reduce bag use. 

In the United States, 133 city- or county-wide anti-plastic bag regulations have been passed. Bag bans cover one of every three Californians and virtually all Hawaiians. Chicago’s city council voted for a bag ban in April 2014.  Dallas and Washington, D.C., are among the handful of jurisdictions that charge 5–10ȼ for each plastic or paper bag; in both cities, charges were instituted to reduce the number of bags in local rivers. In Canada, much of the anti-bag action is voluntary, with a number of retailers participating. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees. Liquor stores in Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have tossed out the plastic bag for good.

Latin America also hosts a number of initiatives to reduce plastic bag litter and waste, including bans in the Chilean cities of Pucón and Punta Arenas and in the states of Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina, to name a few. Carryout bags in a couple of Brazilian states are required to be biodegradable. São Paulo state banned free single-use plastic bags starting in January 2012, allowing heavy reusable or biodegradable bags to be sold for 10ȼ, but the measure was removed by an industry-supported court injunction, despite the backing of the supermarket trade association. Similarly, Mexico City banned plastic shopping bags in 2009, but, under pressure from plastics manufacturers, the measure was replaced before enforcement began with a recycling initiative—a common tactic used by industry groups around the world against stricter bans or fees.

Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence.


Selected Initiatives Around the World to Reduce Plastic Bag Use
Botswana In 2007, Botswana established a minimum thickness for bags and mandated that retailers apply a minimum levy to thicker bags, which would be used to support government environmental projects. Many retailers charged more than the minimum tax, and prices fluctuated over time. A study of four retail chains 18 months after implementation of the charge showed that bag use fell by half.
Kenya In 2007, Kenya banned the manufacture and import of thin plastic bags, yet the ban was not enforced. In 2011, the use of thin bags was banned and a tax was imposed on thicker bags, yet neither the tax nor the ban has been well enforced.
Rwanda In 2008, Rwanda banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags thinner than 100 microns, which covers most typical carryout bags. Expatriate and journalist accounts note that plastic bags found in the luggage of airline passengers from outside the country are confiscated. However, there is a black market for plastic bags, and there have been reports that bags are freely used in some areas.
South Africa In South Africa, thin plastic bags were banned in 2003. The government set a charge for thicker plastic bags and took a portion of it as a levy to fund environmental projects. Bag use decreased by 90 percent when the measures were first introduced, but consumption has slowly increased since. Retailers charge consumers varying prices near half a rand (50ȼ).
Bangladesh Plastic shopping bags were introduced to Bangladesh in the early 1980s and quickly became ubiquitous. They were blamed for exacerbating flooding in 1989 and 1998 by blocking drains. In 2002, the government attempted to ban the manufacture and use of plastic bags in Dhaka (the capital) and then nationwide. However, a lack of enforcement has prevented a noticeable decrease in use.
Bhutan Plastic bags were banned in Bhutan in 1999 as part of the kingdom’s effort to increase Gross National Happiness. However, the ban was poorly implemented and as a consequence it had to be reintroduced in 2005; monitoring of compliance is difficult.
China A few cities and provinces introduced and tried to implement policies limiting or eradicating bags in the beginning in the late 1990s, but enforcement was poor. In association with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, a set of national laws limiting plastic bag production and consumption came into effect. These mandated that all retailers stop providing bags under a certain thickness and charge a fee for thicker bags that is higher than the cost of the bag. According to government figures, one year after the charge began, bag use was reduced by 40 billion bags, and by 2013, the savings reached 67 billion bags. A detailed study found that shoppers in Beijing and Guiyang used fewer new plastic bags, filled them with more items, and were more likely to reuse them after the law was implemented.
Hong Kong In 2009, major supermarkets and chain stores in Hong Kong were required to charge HK50 cents (6ȼ) for plastic bags. In 2013, the government announced that the fee raised less than initially projected, pulling in HK$26.5 million, far short of the expected HK$200 million. The charge successfully reduced plastic bag use by 75 percent in the affected stores.  In 2014, the Legislative Council voted to expand the charge to all retailers and allow the stores to keep the proceeds.
India Various levels of government have tried to regulate plastic bags to little effect. In 1999, the Indian government banned very thin plastic bags used to carry food. There have been multiple attempts to ban plastic bags in Delhi. After plastic bags were implicated in severe flooding, Mumbai, the capital city of India’s largest state, Maharashtra, tried to ban plastic bags. Later the entire state tried twice to institute a ban. All these efforts have been unsuccessful due to poor enforcement and pressure from the quickly growing plastics industry. Pune, also in Maharashtra, is the latest city to attempt banning plastic bags, passing legislation in February 2014.
Taiwan Taiwan used 16 million shopping bags a day before the government began restricting their use in 2001. Now plastic bags cost between NT$1 and NT$2 (3–6ȼ) each. In 2006, 72 percent of people surveyed said they regularly carried used plastic bags when they went shopping, compared with 18 percent in 2001 before the bag charge.
European Union Some 88 billion single-use plastic bags are used in the EU every year, ranging from about 4 single-use bags a year in Denmark and Finland to over 400 bags per person annually in Portugal, Poland, and Slovakia. Although many European countries have attempted to decrease plastic bag use on their own, bag litter is still problematic enough—especially in the marine environment—that the European Commission (EC) decided to attempt enforcing a Europe-wide law. In April 2014, draft rules amending the EC’s Packaging Waste Directive were approved by the European Parliament. The new rules aim to decrease plastic bag use in the EU by 50 percent by 2017 and by 80 percent by 2019. Member states can choose whether to use bans, taxes, or other means to hit the targets.
Bulgaria Bulgaria’s tax on plastic bags began in October 2011, at 15 stotinki (11ȼ) per bag. It has since increased to 55 stotinki. This tax is imposed on producers and importers and is then passed on to retailers, who pass it on to consumers. Bag consumption more than halved in the first month of the tax.
Denmark Denmark began taxing producers for plastic and paper shopping bags by weight in 1994. The rate paid today is 22 kroner ($4) per kilogram of plastic bags, slightly higher than the original rate of 20 kroner. Bag manufacturers pass the cost on to retailers, who then decide if they will in turn charge customers. Consumers generally pay 2–3.5 kroner (37–65ȼ) per bag, which may be the highest price in the world. The country experienced an initial reduction in bag use of 60 percent in the year after the tax took effect.
France Multiple efforts have been made to reduce single-use plastic bag consumption in France, which fell from 10.5 billion in 2002 to 1.5 billion in 2009. Starting in 1996, major supermarket chain E.Leclerc voluntarily removed non-biodegradable bags from the checkout counter, slashing its plastic bag handouts from 1 billion. In 2007, non-biodegradable plastic bags were banned in Paris. Discussions on how to implement a nationwide tax on non-biodegradable plastic bags, initially set to come into effect in January 2014, were ongoing as of April 2014. The tax of 10 euros ($14) per kilogram of plastic bags would amount to approximately 6 euro cents (8ȼ) per bag.
Germany To comply with the 1991 Packaging Ordinance, German packaging distributers and manufacturers finance the collection, sorting, and recycling of their products—including plastic bags—through what is known as the "Green Dot" system (named for the symbol found on recyclable packaging). According to a study by the German Society for Packaging Market Research, virtually all plastic bags consumed in the country are recycled, almost three quarters of consumers use carrier bags multiple times, and only about a tenth of groceries are taken home in a new plastic bag. Most German supermarkets voluntarily charge 5–10 euro cents (7–14ȼ) per bag. In 2000, Germans used 7 billion plastic bags; in 2012, the figure had dropped to 6 billion (76 bags per person).
Ireland Ireland’s bag levy, which came into force in March 2002, is a frequently referenced example of a successful plastic bag regulation. Prior to implementation, the government gained the support of retailers and the public. The levy applies to both biodegradable and non-biodegradable bags. The proceeds go to the implementation of the levy and to an environmental fund that pays for recycling centers, landfill cleanups, and other environmental projects. The levy began as a 15 euro cent (21ȼ) tax and resulted in an over 90 percent decrease in consumption—from 328 bags per consumer per year to 21 bags. A subsequent increase in consumption—to 31 bags per person by 2006—resulted in a 7 euro cent increase in the levy in July 2007. Again, bag consumption decreased. In 2011, legislation allowed the levy to be amended once a year with the aim of limiting use to 21 bags per person per year or less, with a ceiling at 70 euro cents per bag.
Italy In 1988 Italy passed a law taxing importers and producers of non-biodegradable bags 100 lira (7ȼ) per bag, but it did not last or appear effective. A national pilot program aiming to gradually reduce consumption of non-biodegradable shopping bags began in 2007, and in 2011 Italy banned single-use plastic bags. The ban has not been fully implemented or enforced because of unresolved legal disputes over EU trade laws.
United Kingdom In 2012, U.K. supermarket customers took home over 8 billion single-use plastic bags, roughly 120 per person. Marks and Spencer, a large U.K. retailer, has had a 5 pence (8ȼ) charge for plastic bags in its food sections since 2008. Wales introduced a 5-pence charge on single-use carrier bags at all stores in 2011. Northern Ireland did the same in 2013, and Scotland aims to do so by October 2014. In England, a 5-pence charge will be applied to single-use plastic bags only, beginning in October 2015. Most proceeds will go to charity, and other specifics are under discussion. Several small English towns—such as Kew, Aylsham, Girton, Hebden Bridge, Henfield, Modbury, and Overton—worked with local retailers to encourage voluntary bans on plastic bags in the late 2000s. London considered a plastic bag ban in 2007, but the proposal was shelved the next year.
Argentina The provinces of Buenos Aires and Mendoza both ban plastic bags. In 2012, the city of Buenos Aires tightened the province-wide restrictions on non-biodegradable plastic bags that had been passed in 2008.
Brazil In 2007, Brazil attempted to pass a national bill to encourage biodegradable plastic bags, but it failed. In 2010, the state of Rio de Janeiro passed a law to discourage the use of plastic bags in medium and large supermarkets. The stores were given three options: give a R$0.03 (1ȼ) discount for every five items placed in a customer’s reusable bag; exchange one kilogram of rice or beans for every 50 plastic bags returned by a customer; or provide sturdier, reusable bags instead of plastic bags. Several cities in Brazil have attempted to restrict plastic bag use and encourage reusable or biodegradable bags. The states Goiás and Espírito Santo have each passed laws restricting plastic bag use in favor of biodegradable ones. In 2012, the state of São Paulo began a plastic bag ban, but it was overturned in court later that year.
Chile Pucón was the first city in Chile to ban plastic bags in 2013, to be fully enforced in 2015. Punta Arenas followed suit, passing a ban in early 2014.
Canada The Ontario Plastic Bag Reduction Task Group, a coalition of grocery, retail, and plastics industry associations and the Recycling Council of Ontario, formed in 2007 to work toward the province’s goal of halving plastic bag use by 2012. Stores offered a variety of alternatives to plastic, with many providing incentives for using reusable bags and charging a fee for plastic bags or even dropping them altogether, helping Ontario meet its goal two years early. Retailer participation also helped the province of Québec reach a similar 50 percent reduction goal well before the target date. The Northwest Territories began requiring that grocery stores charge 25ȼ for all single-use bags in January 2010; the law expanded to cover all retailers in February 2011.

Loblaw, a grocery store chain with more than 1,000 stores throughout Canada, began charging 5ȼ per plastic bag in 2009. The chain reported in April 2013 that since 2007 it had avoided giving out 5 billion plastic bags and had donated $5 million of the fee proceeds to WWF-Canada. Other retailers, such as Thrifty Foods, IKEA, Sobey, and Metro, have achieved similar success in reducing plastic bag use.

At the municipal level, in 2007 the town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, became the first Canadian community to ban single-use plastic bags. The city of Thompson, also in Manitoba, banned them in 2010, as did, Fort McMurray—a city that has been called “ground zero” for Alberta’s controversial tar sands development. A 5ȼ charge on plastic shopping bags took effect in Toronto in June 2009. Although it had helped halve plastic bag use, Mayor Rob Ford called on the City Council to end the fee in mid-2012. The Council voted to scrap the fee, replacing it instead with an outright ban to begin January 1, 2013. But in November 2012, the Council abandoned the bag ban following lawsuits from retailers and the plastics industry.
Mexico Mexico City passed a plastic bag ban in 2009, but the law was reformed before it came into effect to simply encourage biodegradable bags and require a certain recycled content in plastic bags.
United States Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. More than 20 million Americans in 132 cities and counties live in communities with plastic bag bans or charges. The movement gained momentum in California and is now going national. Hawaii has a virtual state prohibition, as its four populated counties have gotten rid of plastic bags at grocery checkouts, with the last one beginning enforcement in July 2015. In Texas, 11 cities—including Austin and Dallas—have plastic bag bans or charges on the books. The nation’s capital was the first to pass a 5ȼ charge on plastic and paper bags. The plastics industry has been active in challenging plastic bag bans and fees by supporting opposition groups, suing communities attempting to pass legislation, and promoting recycling to change public attitudes toward plastic bags. National retailers who no longer hand out plastic bags include Whole Foods, which credits shoppers at least 5ȼ for bringing their own reusable bags.
Australia Coles Bay (Tasmania) became Australia’s first town to forgo plastic bags in 2003. Motivated by a desire to protect whales from bag litter as they passed by on their annual migration and to keep the National Park clean, all the retailers agreed to stop providing plastic bags. The rest of the state of Tasmania banned very thin plastic bags in 2013. South Australia was the first state to ban plastic bags, starting in 2009. A 2012 study found that ban effective, with customers bringing their own bags more often. Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory followed with their own plastic bag bans in 2011. While Australia’s four other states do not ban the bag, several cities and towns have initiated voluntary bans.
Source: Compiled by Earth Policy Institute, April 2014. Additional examples at www.earth-policy.org.

Copyright © 2014 Earth Policy Institute