In the last two years, there has been a striking momentum to reduce or eliminate plastic bags in the US as more Americans become aware of the environmental hazards of these bags. While the US movement is in its infancy, much of the world has already taken action.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to outright ban plastic bags. The bags were credited in large part for the massive floods in 1988 and 1998. Enormous amounts of plastic bag litter clogged sewer lines and flooded upwards of two-thirds of the country during these devastating floods.
The litter from plastic bags was so bad in South Africa that the Minister of the Environment and Tourism jokingly named plastic bags the national flower because so many bags decorated their trees. Free bags are now illegal and there is a 3 cent levy on all plastic bags.
Paris banned the bags in 2007, and all of France will follow suit in 2010. Other countries with outright bans or free bag bans include: Bhutan, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Taiwan and Zanzibar. China banned free bags last summer and estimates that it will save 34 million barrels of oil each year.
Countries that tax plastic bags include Ireland, which saw an immediate 90% reduction in plastic bag use after enacting its PlasTax. Ireland saves 400,000 barrels of oil each year due to the tax. In Germany, most stores charge 5 to 25 cents per bag. Hong Kong has proposed a 50 cent tax for 2009. Israel adds a surcharge for plastic bags unless they contain meat, fish, poultry or produce. Sweden also taxes the bags.
Spain is working on its National Plan of Integrated Waste which would include a ban in 2010.
In the UK, the retailers took the lead. Many have eliminated plastic bags and encourage reusable bags. IKEA and Whole Foods are two US chains that have been leaders in the reusable bag movement.
2008 will be remembered as the year US retailers began to regularly stock reusable bags. The mostly non-woven polypropylene bags are becoming standard fare in most stores today. However, people often forget the bags, leading to the surge in popularity of new bags that fold into a pocket so that they can be stored in purses, eliminating the need to remember.
Plastic bags are considered environmentally incorrect because they never fully decompose, are often littered, which causes significant harm to wildlife, and due to the staggering 100 billion used in the US each year, unnecessarily clog our landfills.
Surprisingly, paper bags are worse environmentally. Lack of air and moisture in the landfills prevent proper decomposition, they take more energy to manufacture and deliver, and they cost retailers, and thus consumers, significantly more to produce than plastic bags.
Many Americans now realize, as have many of our European and Asian neighbors, is that reusable bags are the solution to the plastic and paper bag problem.