In 2000, Mumbai, India imposed a ban on plastic bags after facing an urban litter crisis and intense flooding. In 2002, Bangladesh also banned plastic bags. These bans were the first to be highly publicized, not because of the environmental benefits, but because eliminating plastic bags provided disaster mitigation and prevention. The situation arose because plastic bags held no recycling value so garbage pickers would not even pick them up. Instead people turned to shoving the bags into nearby sewers which resulted in the floods. After the ban went into effect, city officials in Mumbai were quite diligent in their enforcement efforts, even going as far as raiding, fining, and seizing plastic from dozens of shops suspected of non-compliance.
A similar situation occurred in Taiwan during 2002. After an outbreak of Hepatitis during the 1990s, the country turned to disposable food packaging and cutlery as a solution to impede the virus. This increase in plastic waste from the food industry, combined with the 2.5 bags citizens used on average daily, created an enormous waste disposal issue. As the new millennium rung in, the county’s recycling facilities were overloaded, and their landfill space was running out. The government responded with a ban on disposable plastic.
A year later, in 2003, the Australian township of Coles Bay, a tourist town with a population of 175, began the online campaign which is now known as #BanTheBag. As a community dependent on ecotourism, #BanTheBag aligns perfectly with their mission to protect the local environment from litter. However, Coles Bay decided to take #BanTheBag detailing the ban which quickly gained coverage within the global environmental community, particularly in Africa. Almost immediately after the Coles Bay announcement, throughout the globe, bans, restrictions, and taxes were levied on plastic shopping bags.
The first city within North America to ban plastic bags was San Francisco in 2007. Since then, this has become a hot topic. Many non-profit groups have arisen to support the cause, most notably, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and 5Gyres. Legislation has been proposed for the entire state of California, and many other US municipalities have passed bans including Aspen, Marshal County, Brookline, Austin, Santa Fe, Portland, Seattle, Laredo, East Hampton, Honolulu County, Hawaii County, Sonoma County. Toronto, Canada put the legislation up for an unsuccessful vote in 2012. Montreal, Canada, is now considering a ban which, if successful, will be the first Canadian metropolis to achieve a ban.
Proponents of plastic bags are not giving up easily, however. A ban for the entire state of California was passed only to be delayed right before the planned implementation date July 1st, 2015 to allow for a referendum vote to take place in 2016. Major players for the plastics industry have formed their own alliances and organizations to counter the efforts of environmentalists.
The Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, announced just last month that he will be open to a debate on the subject of whether to ban the bags outright, or to “look at an in-between situation”. Leading the opposition to the ban in this debate will be Pierre Dubois of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Although Mayor Coderre has made his pro-ban position on the subject clear, Dubois is hoping to persuade him otherwise with the following argument:
“We think a ban is probably the worst way to solve environmental problems,” he said.
Dubois said a bag ban would create other problems. If consumers forget their reusable cloth bags, paper bags and their larger carbon footprint would be the likely option at stores. Consumers who use shopping bags to dispose of waste would in turn have to purchase more bags.
“Exchanging one type of material for another is not necessarily a panacea,” said Dubois, who supports education on recycling and reusing.
Dubois argued that statistics suggest about 59 per cent of Quebecers reuse shopping bags at least once or twice, and that more than one-third recycle them. Approximately 7% are guilty of putting them in the trash.
“I agree with you when I see a bag flying along the road, I cringe,” Dubois said. “That person could have put it in their blue box and it could have been used by someone to make something else.”
The flaw with Dubois’ argument is that the bags are not being recycled at any rate comparable to that which they are being produced. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 9% of plastic is recovered in the United States, a country known for having above-average recycling practices. The percentage of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year is a difficult figure to calculate, however, many environmental research groups have speculated that between 5% – 10% litters the world’s oceans. That is nearly equal minority amounts of plastic winding up on the opposite extremes of the disposal issue, with the vast majority of all plastic still ending up in landfills.
This movement is gaining momentum and expanding. New non-profit organizations, and businesses are contributing to the solution by spreading the word and raising awareness. Bans on plastic drinking bottles and Styrofoam are also gaining popularity around the globe, similar to the way the bag bans did. Plastic waste has the potential to become a life or death struggle in the long run for all of us. It is only through advocating for change and successfully implementing legislation that we can combat this issue and win.