Who are banning plastic bags - and why?
In just the very last few years, governments and societies have suddenly begun to take the threat of climate change seriously – while also realising that more needs to be done to reduce landfill and levels of waste.
Reducing energy use and resource consumption is essential if the ecological footprint (including carbon footprint) of nations is to be reduced.
Recently, steps taken to ban the use of giveaway plastic bags – at a variety of scales from small British villages to the whole of China – have been reported by the newspapers. Who is banning plastic bags – and why?
British bag bans: can they help tackle climate change?
Overseas bag bans: will they really fight floods and disease?
Decision –making: can plastic bag bans save the planet?
Practice AS/A2 essay question
There are “13 billion ways you can help” according to The Daily Mail (27 February 2008). Plenty of alternatives to giveaway plastic bags exist, from the sturdier re-useable "bags for life" now offered by many stores to those made from cloth, not to mention the return of the traditional shopping basket.
A political consensus is building in the UK to ban the single-use plastic bag. Many key players – including government, media, major retailers and shoppers – now support such action.
It all began in a little village called Modbury at the start of 2007. Local shopkeepers agreed that they would refuse to give away plastic bags anymore. But why bother banning bags in the first place? There are many good reasons:
Plastic bags are made of petrochemicals, a non-renewable resource. Introduced in 1977, their manufacturing and transport to markets requires energy. When one ton of plastic bags is reused or recycled, the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil is saved, according to US Environmental Protection Agency. They represent a needless waste of our most valuable non-renewable resource.
Manufacturing of plastic bags results in carbon emissions, contributing to an enhanced greenhouse effect and further global warming.
Plastic bags do not biodegrade. Instead, they photodegrade. This means they break apart into smaller and smaller toxic fragments that contaminate soil, waterways, oceans and enter the food web when ingested by animals. When a plastic bag enters the ocean it therefore becomes a harmful piece of litter.
The Modbury scheme was dreamt up by a 33-year-old BBC camerawoman, Rebecca Hosking, a Modbury resident and nature documentary maker who has seen first hand the devastating effects of plastic carrier bags on marine life.
In Hawaii, she witnessed scores of animals and birds being choked to death by the plastic bags which had washed ashore. “I saw seabirds entangled in all this plastic that doesn't biodegrade, and a whale whose insides were full of plastic bags” (Daily Mail, 24 May 2007).
More places where bags are to be banned
Since Modbury, many other place–based bans have followed or are under discussion:
Hebden Bridge On 1st September 2007, the majority of Hebden Bridge traders stopped issuing new plastic bags when goods are purchased. 59 of this Yorkshire town’s shops are now ‘plastic-bag free’ and many offer cotton /paper / corn starch alternatives to customers.
Brighton The campaign at plasticbagfreebrighton.co.uk is encouraging all Brighton & Hove shoppers to use and re-use environmentally friendly shopping bags and asks all shops to supply them.
Isle of Wight The island’s Footprint Trust has said: “We feel that as part of the Eco Island vision the Isle of Wight should seek to reduce the use of disposable carrier bags. We welcome the concept of Bags-for-Life promoted by many major retailers”.
London According to the Daily Telegraph (13 November 2007), shops in London could soon be banned from handing out plastic bags under a new law. London Councils, an umbrella group for the capital’s 33 local authorities, wants to reduce the four billion plastic bags sent to landfill each year by Londoners. All shoppers may soon have to take their own bags with them or buy reusable ones. 60 per cent of Londoners are thought to be in favour of such an initiative.
A full list of the many settlements now considering a plastic bag ban can be consulted on the Marine Conservation Society website.
The reaction from big business
Noticing that there has been a lot of positive comment from newspapers and the public in relation to reduced use of plastic bags, supermarkets are introducing their own changes. In 2007, Sainsbury’s stores across the UK launched the sale of reusable cotton shopping bags that had been designed by fashionable handbag retailer Anya Hindmarch (whose accessories are popular with models and celebrities). Bearing the logo “I'm not a plastic bag”, they were soon changing hands on eBay for more than thirty times their original sale price of £5!
Sainsbury’s have also staged one-day “plastic bag bans” at all of their stores (The Guardian, 19 April 2007). Instead of handing out the usual disposable bags, shoppers are instead given re-usable bags for free. Normally these cost 10p each, and Sainsbury's estimates the day cost it £700,000 The supermarket says customers who use the reusable bags an average of 20 times save 90 million disposable bags each year. Since the initiative began, demand for free plastic bags has dropped 10 per cent, equivalent to 85 million bags which saves 750 tonnes of bags going to landfill (The Daily Telegraph, 13 November 2007).
Other stores have shown initiative too, including Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and the Body Shop. Tesco, who give out 4 billion plastic bags each year (nearly a quarter of all bags in the UK!), now awards reward points to shoppers who refuse them. Waitrose recently launched a fortnight-long ban at their Hill Street branch in Saffron Walden in May 2007. Shoppers were expected to provide their own bags, be it recycled plastic ones from a previous shop or the store's own cotton “bags for life”.
The two-week ban was part of a wider experiment, with Waitrose planning to launch plastic bag-free ‘green checkouts’ at stores around the country. All returned bags are recycled into plaswood furniture, including children's activity benches, which Waitrose often donates to local community groups.
Will government force the issue?
The UK Government's waste strategy document, published in May 2007, concluded that: “In the longer term, the Government envisages that the single-use carrier bag, issued free at point of sale, will become a thing of the past.” How will this be achieved?
Until recently, the government approach was light-handed. In February 2007, a Voluntary Code of Practice on Carrier Bags was produced which Waitrose and John Lewis signed up to, along with other major retailers, all of whom pledged that they would:
monitor the current environmental impact of carrier bags and agree a starting figure from which to measure future reduction
work to reduce the overall environmental impact by 25% by the end of 2008
determine steps to make a further reduction by 2010
Fast-forward to March 2008, and the UK government now appears set to take firmer action. According to The Guardian (13 March 2008), high street retailers have been given just one year to cut down on the number of plastic bags they hand out to customers - or they may face legislation that will force them to impose a charge on every bag they give away.
The chancellor Alistair Darling has said that: “We will introduce legislation to impose a charge on them if we have not seen sufficient progress on a voluntary basis.” The legislation could come into force in 2009. Mr Darling believes that this could cut the use of plastic bags by 90%, potentially reducing the number that end up in landfill by 12 billion a year.
Government action may have been spurred on by growing media interest in the story. Since February 2008, the Daily Mail paper has been spearheading a campaign that highlights how 13 billion bags are given away each year by British retailers. They have published many photographs showing the environmental impact of plastic waste on marine animals that have eaten old bags.
UK plastic bag fact-file
A British person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only around 15 minutes before throwing it away
Bags are issued at the rate of more than 800 a year to every family in Britain
Many of these end up as waste, littering beaches, streets and parks
An astonishing 13 billion free single-use plastic bags are dished out by Britain's High Street stores
The bags are a by-product of crude oil, a non-renewable resource that is running out
Gannets off Cornwall can suffer a long painful death after getting caught up in old bags
Many bags end up buried in landfill sites, where they will take between 400 to 1000 years to break down in the environment (if the Normans had used plastic bags in the 1066 invasion, archaeologists would still be digging them up today, according to the Daily Mail)
Modbury was the first place in the UK to introduce a voluntary shop-keepers’ ban
Arran may soon become Britain’s first ‘bag-free’ island
London might become plastic bag-free soon
Many countries other than the UK have taken steps towards banning the use of lightweight disposable plastic bags.
In some countries they have had additional concerns other than landfill and carbon emissions. Plastic bags bring a heightened risk of flooding and disease in tropical countries.
In China and Bangladesh, the use of thin (<0.025mm thickness) plastic bags has been prohibited at the highest level. These small bags have been blocking watercourses and sewers in these two nations, greatly exacerbating flooding, especially during the monsoon season.
Bags have also contributed to health problems in many countries, “providing perfect pools of warm water for mosquitoes and other insects to breed rapidly” (The Guardian, 23 February 2008).
Asia and Australia
In Bangladesh, a ban was first introduced in 2002 while in China, the ban became law at the start of 2008.
Hong Kong used to produce 8 billion bags a year but has now introduced a bill to make supermarkets charge for the use of plastic bags.
Densely populated Taiwan, which is running out of landfill space, has not only banned bags but has also stopped fast food restaurants and supermarkets issuing plastic knives, forks and cups. Like Hong Kong, the Taiwanese government also makes supermarkets charge for bags.
At least six Indian states, including Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, have bans or are considering them.
Australia has launched a “Say No To Carrier Bags” campaign and is planning to impose a federal ban in 2008.
The government in Ireland introduced a bag tax back in 2002. It currently stands at 16p per bag, and has led to a 90 per cent reduction in use.
The biggest supermarkets in France imposed a ban on free bags in 2007, following consumer campaigns. Stores now charge between 2p and 42p for reusable bags. This has removed millions of free bags from high streets and the French government will impose an outright ban in 2010.
According to the UN environment programme based in Nairobi, “the plastic problem is now on the agenda of almost every African country” (The Guardian, 23 February 2008).
Rwanda and Eritrea have banned the bags outright while Tanzania has stopped all imports as well as the manufacture of bags (and also flimsy plastic drinking water containers).
South Africa, which once produced 7 billion plastic bags a year, has prohibited bags thinner than 30 microns (one micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre).
In Somaliland, a ban has prohibited the importation, production and use of plastic bags since March 2005.
San Francisco and Oakland in California are forcing shops to use bags made of at least 40% high-grade recycled paper.
New York has passed a law forcing large stores to provide bins for recycling plastic bags.
However, these bans have not always been as successful as policy-makers had hoped. According to newspapers, little data is available to show whether the early ban in Dhaka (Bangladesh) has worked or not. A ban on the use of thin plastic bags in Uganda is also reported to have been widely ignored.
The banning of bags also creates other problems. The plastics industry in Taiwan, which has used to produce 20 billion bags a year, expects to see 50,000 jobs lost. In China, Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, which employs 20,000 people, has shut down as a result of action against plastic bags.
Inset: A ‘victim’ of China’s bag ban
“China's war against ‘white pollution’ has claimed its first large-scale victim with the closure of the country's biggest plastic bag manufacturer. The shutdown of Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, which employs 20,000 people, highlighted the social costs of a government drive to clean up one of the world's most polluted environments. It comes less than two months after the state banned production of ultra-thin bags and ordered supermarkets to stop giving away free carriers from June 1 2008.
“That surprise move - which went further than anything done by the US, the UK and many other developed nations - was hailed by Greenpeace, Earthwatch and other green groups as a sign of growing environmental awareness in China. But it was a disaster for the company, which earned most of its 2.2bn yuan (£155m) income from the annual production of 250,000 tonnes of bags.
“The firm ceased production in mid-January, after the government announced the new ban on bags under 0.025mm thick. ‘Over 90% of our products are on the limit list, so the only way forward for the factory is closure,’ a management official told the Xinhua news agency. The closure is unlikely to be the last.”
Source: The Guardian newspaper 27 February 2008
Worldwide plastic bag facts
The world uses over 1.2 trillion plastic bags a year, an average of about 300 bags for each adult on the planet (equivalent to over one million bags being used per minute)
The US uses 100 billion plastic bags a year
Six million tonnes of plastic debris enter the world’s oceans each year
Nearly 90% of all floating marine litter is plastic that has come from land, washed by rain off city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea
Marine animals often die when they swallow plastic bags or plastic bag fragments
Dolphins suffer strangulation and suffocation because of plastic bags
When one dead whale’s stomach was cut open recently, a kilogram of plastic bags was found - she had mistaken them for food and died a painful death
China now has a ban because of fears of sewers and waterways becoming blocked by discarded carrier bags
Getting a handle on the plastic problem. Guardian 23 February 2008
China's biggest plastic bag maker closes after ban. Guardian 27 February 2008
Can fewer plastic bags really be the key to saving the planet? Are plastic bag bans are a bold-enough step in the right direction of “sustainable development”?
Widely adopted after the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, the term sustainable development means:
Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The suggestion is that future generations should not face serious resource shortages, and a reduction in environmental quality, as a result of existing societies out-stripping the carrying capacity of the planet.
For sustainable development goals to be met, renewable resources need to be managed in ways that guarantee their continued use and no lasting damage must be done to the environment.
Excessive use of disposable plastic bags fails on both counts. Firstly, precious oil is wasted manufacturing the bags. Secondly, their failure to bio-degrade for hundreds of years has seriously compromised the environment, polluting even the remotest places and entering marine food webs with devastating effects.
Big issues such as climate change and the world’s ecological footprint are sometimes seen as too challenging for ordinary people to engage with. People may think: “Can I really make a difference acting on my own?” This is why the slogan “Think Global, Act Local” was introduced at the Rio Conference back in 1992 – to remind us that if we all act to “do our own bit” then great changes can still happen. If everyone makes an effort to avoid using plastic bags then there will be truly significant results.
However, not everyone agrees that so much attention should be paid to plastic bags in the fight against climate change and for a cleaner environment. According to newspapers, the global plastics industry, which is estimated to make and distribute between 500 billion and a trillion bags each year, is now fighting back.
Plastics firms are arguing that paper bags –one of the main alternatives – still require plenty of energy to produce and can generate more waste. Clearly, not everyone agrees that plastic bag bans are the number one way to tackle some of the big environmental challenges of the Twenty-First Century.
What fellows next are some viewpoints from different groups of people, as reported in newspapers recently. There are plenty of other perspectives for students to research using the links provided in this article (e.g. the Modbury village website, where the UK story began).
The British Retail Consortium
“It's outrageous to suggest carrier bags are a major cause of climate change,” say’s the group’s director general, Stephen Robertson. He thinks the UK government are guilty of a “knee-jerk reaction” to a “highly emotive” environmental campaign.
The Guardian (13 March 2008)
The UK Association of Convenience Stores
This UK group represents 33,000 local shops. James Lowman, chief executive of the ACS, says: “We have fully supported the government’s targets to reduce the impact of carrier bags and there are countless excellent initiatives by independent retailers aimed at reducing bag use.” He thinks that a charge would, if introduced sensitively, “hold no fears for convenience stores”.
The Guardian (13 March 2008)
The Society of the Plastics Industry
This organisation represents 2,000 plastic manufacturers in the US. They think that retailers have been too quick to give in to “the outcries of alarmists” (such as environmental activists and non-government organisations).
The Guardian (12 January 2008)
The Australian Retailers Association
“Whoever wants to save the planet on this one is off the planet, because it won't!” says Richard Evans, executive director of the Australian Retailers Association. “Plastic bags are a part of our lives - if we replace them, we are going to replace them with paper and where's the paper going to come from. Do we cut down more trees ... do we increase greenhouse gases?”
The Guardian (12 January 2008)
A Beijing shopkeeper
In Beijing, China, where a plastic bag ban has now been introduced, a kiosk owner told a Guardian newspaper reporter that: “I don't think the police will come here and stop me issuing bags. But it might be a good thing for me if the customers have to pay for them.”
The Guardian (12 January 2008)
Key documents for reading that explain the need to reduce carbon footprints (another aspect of concern over plastic bag manufacturing) include the Stern Report and the 2006-07 series of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
Stern Review Pages
Stern Review Full Report
Stern Review Executive Summary
IPCC Summary Report
IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report
Examine how different groups of people are making efforts to reduce their ecological footprint.
This essay invites students to explore one or more strategies for reducing energy and resource consumption. A discussion of plastic bag bans could form the major part of the essay (perhaps alongside a brief mention of one or two other conservation strategies such as recycling or carbon credit trading schemes). For a basic level of exam success, you will firstly need to:
accurately explain what is meant by “ecological footprint”
know some facts and figures about how many plastic bags are currently used, how many might be saved if schemes are introduced and who some of the major players are (e.g. the village of Modbury)
show how this can help the planet (e.g. less landfill or energy use making disposable bags)
To receive a good grade for your essay, you will also need to give your essay some structure by introducing themes for discussion. One theme might be to explore what is meant by “different groups of people”. At varying scales, your essay might consider:
Businesses (e.g. Tesco)
National government (e.g. UK or China)
Different settlements or local governments (e.g. Modbury)
This could form the basis for a paragraph-by-paragraph essay plan.
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