Global plastic production is rising rapidly. By 2030 the world may produce 619 million tonnes of plastic every year. Plastic bag bans, if properly planned and enforced, can effectively counter one of the causes of plastic overuse.
But even when they are effectively implemented, such bans are not enough. To reduce the amount of plastic waste we generate, governments must enact strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics. Plastic waste must be seen as a resource, not a curse.
Governments need to improve waste management systems and introduce financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers and manufacturers.
They must pump more money into the research and development of alternative materials, raise awareness among consumers, fund innovation, ensure plastic products are properly labelled and carefully weigh possible solutions to the current crisis.
Governments must engage a broad range of stakeholders in the decision-making process as they seek to tackle the crisis. To meet the rising tide of plastics, we urgently need strong government leadership and intervention.
The response so far – a mixed bag of governments around the world are increasingly awake to the scale of the crisis.
More than 60 countries have introduced policies to curb plastic pollution.
Plastic bags and, to a certain extent, foamed plastic products like styrofoam have been the main focus of government action so far. This is understandable. These plastic products are often the most visible forms of plastic pollution. It is estimated that roughly 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. That is almost 10 million plastic bags per minute. If tied together, plastic bags could be wrapped around the world seven times every hour.
The following looks at the various strategies that governments have adopted to date. These fit into four broad categories: levies on consumers, voluntary agreements with retailers, total bans, and a combined ban and levy. The results have been mixed.
Levies on plastic bags
In countries like Ireland where data exist, a dramatic decrease in the use of plastic bags has been recorded when customers are forced to pay for bags. Money raised from the levy can be paid into a fund devoted to combatting plastic pollution and other environmental problems.
In Austria, for example, large retailers agreed to stop providing customers with free plastic shopping bags. Some retailers that have entered into similar agreements with governments have gone a step further, allowing consumers to buy only reusable bags.
The Government of Rwanda, for example, has banned the manufacture, use, sale and importation of all plastic bags. Paper bags have replaced plastic ones and citizens have been encouraged to use reusable bags made of cotton. Tax incentives were provided to companies willing to invest in plastic recycling equipment or in the manufacture of environmentally friendly bags.
Kenya, which has introduced a similar ban, and Rwanda both punish offenders with jail time or fines. New York City has banned styrofoam products, arguing that it is impossible to recycle the material in an economic and environmentally sound way.
China has banned plastic tableware.
Combined bans and levies
In South Africa, the government banned plastic bags below a certain thickness and introduced a levy on food retailers selling 24-litre bags. The strategy did little to reduce the consumption of plastic bags, in part because the levy was too low to change consumer behaviour.
It is too early to draw robust conclusions on the environmental impact that these bans and levies have had. In 50 per cent of cases, information about their impact is lacking, partly because some countries have adopted them only recently and partly because monitoring is inadequate.
In countries that do have data, about 30 per cent have registered drastic drops in the consumption of plastic bags within the first year.
The remaining 20 per cent of countries have reported little to no change.
Of the countries that have reported little to no impact, the main problems appear to be (i) a lack of enforcement and (ii) a lack of affordable alternatives. The latter has led to cases of smuggling and the rise of black markets for plastic bags or to the use of thicker plastic bags that are not covered by the bans. This has increased environmental problems in some cases.
Given the broad range of possible actions to curb single-use plastics and their mixed impact, UN Environment has drawn up a 10-step roadmap for governments to follow should
they seek to adopt similar measures or improve on current ones. The roadmap is based on lessons from 60 countries around the world.
1. Target the most problematic single-use plastics and their source. Assess the impact of these plastics on the environment, human health, wildlife and the economy. If adopting a levy, find out how willing consumers are to pay, so the levy is big enough to change behaviour.
2. Work out the best way to tackle the problem given the country’s socio-economic standing. It is pointless to introduce a ban if it cannot be enforced, for example.
3. Assess the social and economic costs of the ban. How will the poor be affected? What impact will the preferred course of action have on different sectors and industries?
4. Meet with key stakeholders – retailers, consumers, industry representatives, local government, manufacturers, civil society, environmental groups, tourism associations – to ensure broad buy-in. Evidence-based studies are also necessary to defeat opposition from the plastics industry.
5. Raise public awareness about the harm caused by single-used plastics. Clearly explain the decision and any punitive measures that will follow.
6. Before the ban or levy comes into force, assess the availability of alternatives. Provide economic incentives to encourage the uptake of alternatives that do not cause more harm. Support can include tax rebates, research and development funds, technology incubation, public-private partnerships, and support to projects that recycle single-use items and turn waste into a resource that can be used again. Reduce or abolish taxes on the import of materials used to make alternatives.
7. Provide incentives to industry. Governments will face resistance from the plastics industry, including importers and distributors of plastic packaging. Give them time to adapt.
8. Use revenues generated by a levy to maximize public good. Support environmental projects and boost recycling with the funds. Create jobs in the plastic recycling sector with seed funding.
9. Enforce the measure effectively.
10. Monitor and adjust the chosen tool if necessary and update the public on progress.
Strategies to phase out other single-use plastics have recently started to appear in several countries. The plastic bag ban in Antigua and Barbuda has led to a ban on the import of plastic food containers and the use of plastic utensils. Costa Rica plans to ban all single-use plastics.
Public-private partnerships and voluntary agreements can be good alternatives to bans. Voluntary reduction strategies allow citizens time to change their consumption patterns and provide an opportunity for affordable and eco-friendly alternatives to hit the market. The promotion and adoption of reusable bags is an example of a reduction strategy where the choice lies with the consumer. This strategy has changed consumer behaviour and reduced the use of conventional plastic bags in many regions.
In Canada, for example, reusable bags have been widely embraced after they were promoted as the “green” choice. Organizations frequently offer them as a promotional item free of charge. Adequate social awareness of the plastic crisis is vital for reduction strategies to work.Many types of reusable bags are available on the market. They are often produced using materials that give the bag added strength; they are also heavier and more durable.
Although more environmentally friendly than traditional single-use plastic bags, recycling reusable bags can be complicated, time intensive, and costly. Depending on their composition, reusable bags might have to be deconstructed in the
recycling process to separate the different materials. Consequently, reusable bags are often not recycled.
This means that millions of reusable bags end up in landfills at the end of their useful life. It is critical to consider the options available locally for the recycling or upcycling of reusable bags before they are widely adopted.