There are about 100 billion single-use, non-biodegradable plastic bags used in Europe annually. Or there have been. This year there should be 20 billion fewer.
That’s because as of the first of the year, use of plastic bags has been banned in Italy, where about a fifth of Europe’s annual 100 billion had been used.
Along the way to Italy’s ban there were outcries from those who complained that biodegradable bags are less durable. Well, duh. We expect biodegradable bags to break down, not sit there in their permanent, impermeable way, in landfills, or form giant floating reefs in the Pacific.
We hear that China is not environmentally aware or responsible, and pollutes air, water and soil with abandon. Well, maybe so, but China did ban plastic bags two years back, thereby keeping some 100 billion bags out of landfills, dumps and waterways, so far.
Retailers say biodegradable plastic bags cost too much and they aren’t sturdy enough. Those might seem to be drawbacks, especially for people who like to keep those bags around for long periods to store things in or to use in crafts. But hey, we all know we can accumulate single-use bags in vast quantities, unless we deliberately try not to. There is no way to make them all into crocheted rugs or place mats, is there. Taking them all back to a collection point at a supermarket sounds great, but do we know what happens to them after that?
Perhaps some of the bags would be shredded and mixed with other materials to produce paving or foam packing or furniture, according to some literature I read. But it takes a lot of energy to accomplish that, and commercial companies are wary of investing much in the process.
Banning bags is one approach. Another is using bag fees. Ireland imposed a PlasTax in 2002. Washington, D.C. adopted a similar measure.
Ireland was a major consumer of plastic bags—about 1.2 billion a year. The tPlasTax cut that consumption by about 90 percent! And the tax yielded about $9.6 in annual revenue. The money does to a “green fund” dedicated to environmentally beneficial projects.
New York City is considering a similar program, as are U.K. and Australia.
The idea of imposing a fee or tax for plastic bag use is that this changes consumer behavior. A consumption tax is a market-based solution. It’s something like a liquor tax or a tobacco tax. “Okay, we won’t forbid your use of this product, but if you insist on your right to use it, that will come at a price. Your use brings some social (or environmental) harms. So you must pay the freight.”
Under the PlasTax Irish shoppers pay 15 cents for every bag used for their order at check-out. Retailers find they use far fewer of the taxed bags, and don’t have to stock many.
Another benefit to retailers is that they sometimes resell used plastic bags, which means that those endlessly dispensed and soon discarded bags are recycled in the most direct way possible, at minimal cost.
Administration of the program is easy. Retailers keep records of bags they purchase and sales of those bags. The Irish Republic has a bureau that monitors those transactions, mostly electronically.
There are exemptions for meat, poultry, fish, produce and ice. Also, heavier, reusable plastic bags are still permitted without penalty.
Along the way, 18 million liters of oil have been saved each year, by reduced bag production.
Instead of using more paper to bag purchases, stores promote use of long-term use totes, as is done here. Those are among the many popular and environment-friendly items sold by reuseit.com and other vendors.
If anyone doubts that fees can help control waste and encourage recycling, take a look at how buy-the-bag or stickering systems impact garbage and trash volume, and recycling around here. People become quite enthusiastic about keeping recyclable materials out of the landfill when it costs quite a lot to send them there, and hardly anything to deposit them in Casella dumpsters provided by the township.
As for push-back at the grocery store, I doubt there would be much. People have been paying deposits on beverage cans and bottles for decades, and most people do not collect those deposits! Besides, for bagging groceries and other merchandise, people can bring their own bags and escape the fees.
Would you support a ban on disposable plastic bags? How about a fee for their use?