Lessons from the Countries Fighting to Kick the Plastic Bag Addiction

By Sebastian Rosemont, Brynna Strand, and Charlie Ann Kerr

Representatives from nations around the world met in New York on April 20, 2018 for “Kicking the Plastic Bag Addiction: A Plan for Response to Plastic Pollution” discussion, co-hosted by the Government of Quebec, Earth Day Network, and New York University. The discussion focused on ongoing efforts to tackle plastic pollution through taxes and bans on plastic bags. The good news: countries have proved that laws addressing plastic pollution really do work, reducing overall consumption and preventing millions of plastic bags from ending up in the environment or landfills.

The discussion was full of insights for other countries considering laws and regulations on how to ensure that a plastic ban is successful, including maintaining a solid line of communication between citizens, local NGOs, and the government. Civil society groups are especially well-suited to engaging the wider community and leading powerful educational campaigns. Governments, national and local, have also found that although industry groups push back when policies to drastically reduce the use of plastic bags are planned or announced, they are quick to adapt, especially when they have time to do so and are engaged throughout the process. The following countries and international bodies were present at the meeting and are leading the way in the global campaign to end plastic pollution. Here’s what they have done.

France

Policy: In July 2016, France banned free distribution of thin single-use plastic bags typically distributed at grocery stores. A ban of thin green bags used for produce followed in January 2017. The bans aim to reduce an estimated five billion plastic grocery bags, and 12 billion produce bags. The French Minister of Sustainable Development noted the importance of reducing plastic pollution to reduce its disastrous effects on marine environments.
Impact: Like most bans on plastics, it has received backlash from the plastic industry. Bio-sourced and biodegradable bags made from a cornstarch and plastic blend have been proposed as a solution to potential negative economic impacts of the ban. In 2016, the French Environment Minister estimated more than 3,000 jobs would result from production of a greener alternative to traditional, single-use grocery bags. The newest addition to the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act proposes a ban on plastic plates and utensils, to be further discussed in 2020.

Mexico

Policy: Although Mexico does not have a federal ban on plastic bags, many cities and states are taking action to reduce plastic pollution. In 2009, Mexico City introduced legislation to prohibit retailers from distributing single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags. Industrial hub Queretaro became the first municipality in Mexico to ban plastic bags, in April 2018. Cancun, a center for tourism, has proposed a plan to eliminate plastic bags, straws, and water bottles, initially through voluntary action.
Impact: Queretaro intends to strictly enforce the ban by confiscating illicit bags, and denying business license renewal for offenders. Mexico City’s plan was met with pushback from the plastic industry, but the city has persevered in its mission to reduce plastic pollution with a recycling initiative. Officials expect Cancun’s plan to be implemented over the next three years, with intentions to enact a full ban within this time frame.

Canada

Policy: Montreal implemented a ban on plastic bags with thickness less than 50 microns in January of 2018. Several other municipalities in Canada have followed suit. Victoria intends to ban plastic bags in July of 2018, and Vancouver has also expressed interest in reducing their plastic consumption with a tax or ban. Edmonton has asked businesses to charge for plastic bags, and is reevaluating a ban proposed in 2012.
Impact: The bans on plastic in Canada are relatively new, or still in the process of implementation. Canadian governments have allowed for a six-month grace period for businesses to come into compliance with the new legislation before strictly enforcing the ban. The plans hope to reduce the billions of plastic bags used in Canada every year.

Rwanda

Policy: Rwanda implemented a strict plastic bag ban in 2008. Previously, plastic bags were primarily disposed of by incineration, negatively impacting Rwandan air quality. Bags that were not incinerated clogged streets and waterways.
Impact: The bag ban has been strictly enforced due to challenges posed by smugglers and tourists entering the country. Illegal use of plastic bags can result in fines or jail time. Strict enforcement has had positive impacts on the environment, reducing flooding, harm to wildlife, and erosion.

Ireland

Policy: Ireland was the first country to place a significant tax on plastic bags — now 22 euro cents — at checkout in 2002. For the few bags that are used, the government has ensured that the revenue from the tax goes into different programs aimed at environmental protection.
Impact: The country saw a significant impact almost instantly, with plastic bag consumption dropping by 94%, making the practice of using plastic bags unacceptable by the end of the year. Having inspired other countries to address this issue, Ireland is one of the leading countries tackling plastic bag consumption.

Morocco

Policy: After a partial ban in 2009, Morocco’s law fully banning plastic bags came into effect in July 2016. In the attempt to make plastic bag pollution nearly impossible, this law does not only cover the distribution of plastic bags, but also the import and production of them. To effectively enforce the ban, there are fines ranging from $20,000 to more than $100,000 USD placed on manufacturers and distributors who break the law.
Impact: As the second largest consuming country of plastic bags, it’s no surprise that adhering to the ambitious law has taken time. The government is responding to the challenges the plastic bag ban poses by ensuring that plastic bag alternatives are easily accessible.

European Union

Policy: On January 16, 2018 the European Commission adopted the first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. The plan seeks to eliminate plastic pollution and change the way plastics are produced and consumed in the EU, with a focus on plastic bags, other single-use plastics, and fishing materials. The plan also seeks to improve the economic benefit of recycling, to create jobs through engaging businesses and producers, and to invest in innovation.
Impact: The European Commission will begin to introduce regulations and measures to the European Parliament in 2018 and 2019, including a proposal on the regulation of single-use plastics, packaging waste, and port waste management. The Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy will play an important role in the EU achieving its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and commitments to the Paris Agreement. By 2030 all plastic packaging produced and sold in Europe should be reusable or recyclable. Other 2030 targets include 65% recycling of municipal waste, 75% recycling of packaging waste, and a binding agreement to reduce landfill waste to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

#CleanSeas Campaign: UNEP launched the CleanSeas campaign in 2017 to engage stakeholders from all sectors to fight pollution of plastics in the ocean. Plastic pollution has now reached the deepest parts of the oceans and pieces of plastic are expected to outnumber fish by 2050. The goal is to address the root causes of plastic pollution, primarily the production and consumption of single use plastics. To date, more than 40 countries have signed on to the campaign.
#BeatPlasticPollution Campaign: The #BeatPlasticPollution campaign is the focus of the 2018 World Environment Day organized by the UN. Beat Plastic Pollution, which overlaps with the CleanSeas campaign, also targets single-use plastics and pushes consumers to follow the motto: “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.”

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