Six years ago this week, China took proactive measures to reduce waste from lightweight plastic bags. Nationally, the Government banned stores from handing bags out for free. Stores now charge a fee for plastic bags. The 5 mao tax, equivalent to less than 10 U.S. cents, is minimal but still a deterrent for most. Over half a decade on, these moves have become part and parcel of daily life. With plenty of room for improvement though, it is important to look back on the ban’s successes and where it could go in the future.
We all know the implications from using plastic bags: wildlife choking to death; unsustainable use of petroleum; and the incalculable waste hauled off to landfills. It seems to me that the issue is a simple one to fix. We can either ban bags entirely or encourage consumers to bring their own. In fact, it would follow from an economic perspective that when stores require someone to bring their own bag, it would save company overheads associated with purchasing logoed plastic bags.
Of course the use of plastic bags is still commonplace the world over. Globally, we use nearly 2 million plastic bags every minute! Measures in such far-flung places as China, India, Tanzania, South Africa, Italy and Portugal are reducing bag use on a national level. Ireland is a widely cited example of tough policy creating dramatic returns. Within the first year of placing a 15-euro tax on bags, usage dropped 90 per cent.
If we take the United States as an example, we can see very little in the way of national bag banning legislation. Overall, around 140 cities or counties have regulations monitoring the use of plastic bags. Some are outright bans while others are taxes on their use. With over 19,000 cities in the U.S., however, this is barely a drop in the bucket.
What would a world without plastic bags look like? Last year, the Chinese Government released figures on the ban’s fifth anniversary. Reading some statistics on how China has fared gives a glimpse into a possible future.
Of course there are definite areas for improvement. One of the major critiques of the ban is a lack of enforcement on smaller stores, particularly those selling delicious steamed buns. A staple of any Chinese breakfast, the baozi are served up piping hot in a small, thin plastic bag. Even if the bags do not end up on the ground, they are still destined for the garbage heap. The same goes for bags given out at any number of vegetable or fruit stands.
On its sixth anniversary, it’s time to reevaluate and reinforce the imperative of this ban. The statistics alone speak for themselves: banning the use of plastic bags is a benefit to the environment with minimal cost to implement. We see this beyond just the China example. Rwanda, Denmark and India have all seen dramatic reductions in bag use by simply creating measures against them. The time is ripe for eliminating plastic bags at smaller shops in China as well. Looking ahead four more years to the tenth anniversary of the ban, how much more good could come from increased implementation?