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Bagging it: what’s working in the fight against plastic pollution

Which bans, fines and alternatives are successfully curbing plastic bag use

Scientific estimates say that standard polyethylene can take 500 years to photodegrade (meaning they degrade when exposed to UV light, as they cannot biodegrade). Conservative estimates go up to 1,000 years. Ars Electronica, Flickr
25 March 2020

When three Nairobi fruit vendors found themselves facing fines as high as USD 40,000 for having stacks of plastic bags in their stalls, many Kenyans took to Twitter to criticize the arrest as unfair. The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) “will never arrest the rich people who dump industrial waste in our rivers,” said one. Others pointed out that many upscale supermarkets were still selling produce in plastic wrap, continuing to contribute to plastic pollution.

Kenya’s ban on thin plastic bags is one of the most draconian in the world. Aside from the high fines, people charged with manufacturing, importing or distributing plastic bags can also receive jail time of up to four years. Simply using a bag carries a fine of almost USD 500 and one year in prison. By 2018, one year after the law was enacted, fines of between USD 500 and 1,500 had been handed out to 300 people.

According to NEMA, 80 percent of the population has stopped using plastic bags as a result of the ban. While their studies found more than half of all the cattle in urban areas had plastic bags in their stomachs pre-ban, that figure has gone down to one in ten. The once ubiquitous sight of thousands of flimsy bags fluttering from trees is also largely a thing of the past.

Yet the success of Kenya’s ban is not as clear-cut as it might look, highlighting the many complex issues that such measures have thrown up as countries around the world try to deal with this new scourge of modernity. Do they actually cut down on pollution? Is it fair to punish the poor with fines they can ill afford or jail time? Don’t the substitutes for thin bags, such as thicker polypropylene bags, pollute the environment as well? And while thin plastic bags are smuggled in from neighboring countries, Kenya’s plastic manufacturing sector has laid off thousands of employees as it lobbies for amendments to the strict regulations.

What is not in doubt is the need to drastically curb the pervasive presence of plastic in the environment. The plastics industry churns out an estimated 5 trillion single-use bags every year, double the amount produced 20 years ago. Less than 10 percent of that quantity is recycled, and much of it – about 8 million tons, according to a 2018 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report – ends up in the world’s oceans.

Plastic refuse is killing animals that ingest it, trapping marine mammals and smothering life on the sea floor. In Thailand, for example, which ranks as the world’s sixth-highest country for putting plastic waste in the ocean, an epidemic of wildlife deaths from consuming plastic bags outraged the public and pushed the government to enact a ban earlier this year. On land, plastic bag litter fouls entire landscapes, worsens flooding by clogging waterways and drains, and, as it breaks down into toxic microparticles, ends up in the food chain.

At what price?

By now, at least 130 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate thin plastic bags. In the U.S. alone, where there is no comprehensive national legislation in place, around 450 state or local ordinances nonetheless regulate disposable bags, whether through fees or bans, says Tatiana Homonoff, assistant professor of economics and public policy at New York University.

According to Karl Holmberg, a political science research assistant at Lund University in Sweden and co-author of a 2019 review of public policies on plastic bags, the success – or lack thereof – of regulations has a lot to do with the context. “It’s often linked to other social factors, like state capacity, trust in authorities or public perception of these policies. There’s no one size fits all,” he says.

Indeed the results are mixed. Bangladesh, the first country to implement a ban, has seen no change in usage because its laws are not enforced. Ireland, which charges a fee for disposable bags, has seen their use drop by 90 percent. Its policy has become a template for other European nations.

According to Holmberg’s report, “the accumulated global effect of plastic carrier bag policies remains uncertain, as does the exact impact by such policies on reducing global plastic pollution.”

“You can see that in a lot of developed countries, levies and fees seem to be somewhat more common,” says Holmberg, “and in developing countries, bans are often the preferred choice. That’s due to the fact that a ban is more straightforward. If it would work, you will see a 100 percent drop (in use). But with fees, you would need to measure the impacts and actually collect the fee. It would require more action on the part of the state.”

Homonoff’s research has shown that charging a small fee or tax for a disposable bag is the most effective way of reducing their use.

“If your goal is to reduce all types of disposable bag use, and encourage customers to use a reusable bag or to not use any bags at all, my research suggests that a disposable bag fee is much more effective than a plastic bag ban,” she says.

The thin and thick of it

Chicago first enacted a ban in 2015, specifically targeting the traditional flimsy plastic grocery bag. “What we found is that most of the large retailers in that area started offering the thick plastic bags, which were not covered by the regulations,” says Homonoff, who has focused her research on the American city. Others started offering paper bags, which also, she pointed out, carry a large environmental footprint.  

“In contrast,” she adds, “disposable bag taxes in the U.S. cover all types of disposable bags, paper and plastic, thick and thin. So while all types of disposable bags are still available to consumers, unlike under a plastic bag ban, the regulation covers a broader set of disposable options.”

Based on an economic theory of loss aversion, people will balk at paying for a bag even if the price is low and either bring a reusable bag or not use any bag at all. Studies of various U.S. cities tend to show disposable bag reductions of around 50 percent or more when made to pay.

“The takeaway from my research and others who are working in the area is, if you want to decrease disposable bag use, you have to make sure that your policy is regulating all close substitutes,” says Homonoff. “That can take two forms: a tax or a fee on all types of disposable bags, or a hybrid ban, [which is] a plastic bag ban coupled with a paper bag fee.”

Made not to last

Many environmentalists, meanwhile are emphasizing that regulating the use and availability of plastic bags is just the beginning of a solution. Fishing debris in oceans, for example, is even worse for marine life than plastic bags. And while Thailand’s plastic bag ban resulted in custumers getting creative with their containers – from cooking pots to traffic cones to suitcases – alternatives to plastic are needed.

One example of progress in that field might be the partnership between the UNEP and the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, designed to stimulate research on how to shift to a circular plastics economy. The Foundation also funds research into substitutes, like plant-based cellulose. Those innovations could rejuvenate the industry, as companies diversify operations into manufacturing eco-friendly alternatives. For developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, better waste-management and recycling facilities are also part of the solution.

For Holmberg, what needs to shift is the whole single-use mindset. Whether a bag is plastic or biodegradable cellulose, “it is important that items are considered valuable and essentially reused over and over again, regardless of the material,” he says. The manufacture and subsequent disposal of single-use items are always going to have a negative impact on the environment and the atmosphere.

“We have a problem in how we use materials like plastic,” he says, “and the plastic bag symbolizes that.”


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