Plastic bags can be environmental and economic menaces. Every year an estimated 200,000 animals die from plastic bags they accidentally ingest or get tangled in. It takes over half a liter of oil to make a single plastic bag, with 20 million barrels of oil being used annually to make 5 trillion plastic bags. These bags then decompose slowly over thousands of years, while taking up valuable space in landfills. To stop the waste caused by this “mass-produced trash,” governments across the world have been working to ban free plastic bags.
San Francisco was the first U.S. city to pass a law limiting the use of plastic bags. In 2007 the city voted to ban plastic bags in all large supermarkets and pharmacies. The stores were given the option of using either biodegradable cornstarch bags or bags fabricated from recyclable paper.
On the Hawaiian island of Maui, a law banning all plastic bags was passed in 2008, but in order to give stores that had already purchased plastic bags in bulk time to use up their supplies, it was not made effective until Jan. 11, 2011.
In Washington, D.C., plastic bags have been taxed at 5 cents since January 2010. Not only did this small fee reduce monthly plastic bag usage from 22 million bags to 3 million bags, an 86-percent decrease, it also produced $150,000, which went to help clean up the nearby Anacostia River.
Elsewhere in the world several countries and cities have also taken it upon themselves to ban free plastic bags. Italy, which had previously used around one-fifth of Europe’s plastic bags annually, recently banned them, following the lead of two of its major cities, Venice and Turin. Mumbai, India, has banned them since 2000; China, since 2008. In Mexico City and France, stores are allowed to distribute only biodegradable bags.
In almost all of the places where the free plastic bag has disappeared, there has been very little consumer backlash. In fact, in Ireland, where a 22-cent tax on plastic bags has been in effect since 2008, a social stigma is attached to plastic bags.
There are different ways to go about limiting plastic bag distribution: A government can tax them and use the money to contribute to environmental restoration; it can institute the use of biodegradable or reusable bags; or it can simply ban plastic bags. In no place have bans become a terrible inconvenience, as replacements have always been a part of these laws.