The plastic bag option at grocery stores and pharmacies has come under attack worldwide. If the trend continues, the familiar phrase “Paper or plastic?” will be lost on the generations to come just as dial-up and bookstores are falling from the radar. As the United States uses over 250 million plastic bags each year, this apparent movement has spread quickly in the last decade.
Beginning in the early 2000s, European countries began taxing plastic bag use at grocery stores. Ireland taxes 33 cents per bag, leading to a 94% decrease in plastic bag use, and Italy has banned them this year. While Italy pioneered the ban in Europe, the European Commission is currently discussing regulating plastic bag use as it applies to the European Union.
While Europe has typically foraged the way for environmentally protective legislature, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags all together in 2001. The law was passed after plastic bags obstructed storm drains, leading to a destructive flood. Surprisingly, China took this same step. Prior to hosting the Olympic games, China banned plastic bags in the hope of lessening “white pollution.” Before the 2008 ban, China allotted 37,000,000 barrels of oil annually for plastic bag production alone. So as much of an environmental act, the ban has significant economical implications as well. A north Indian state, Himachal Pradesh, was the first in India to institute the total plastic bag ban. India boasts some of the strictest laws against them: steep fines of about 2,000 US dollars and even imprisonment if caught using a plastic bag. With hills littered with plastic bags, the Indian government has spoken out about the serious damage that polythene pollution has caused to the soil and the subsequent decline in agricultural wealth of Indian land.
California has taken the lead in the plastic bag ban movement in the US. San Francisco became the first US city to eliminate plastic bags from grocery stores, followed by Malibu, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Marin County, and Los Angeles. Although the state did not pass a state-wide law to ban plastic bags, Californian cites no longer have to submit environmental impact reports of plastic bag use to make their case against them. This has made it much easier to ban plastic bags in Californian. Elsewhere in the US, Washington, D.C. and New York both charge 5 cents per bag, Portland, OR has banned plastic bags this month, and Austin is moving toward a city-wide ban.
Unsurprisingly, the Plastic Industry has retaliated. Their tactics have been linked to the Tobacco Industry and specifically Phillip Morris. The American Chemical Council (AAC) umbrellas ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical amongst other petroleum based companies. The AAC has organized the Progressive Bag Affiliates and strives to overturn legislation aimed at banning plastic bags. The AAC has launched campaigns insisting that state-wide bans will spur hidden taxation and burden the typical, hardworking american citizen. Their efforts overturned Seattle’s 20 cent tax per bag law. The California Senate rejected the plastic bag ban largely to the 2 million dollar campaign that the American Chemical Council waged against it. Oregon’s efforts to ban plastic bags mirrored California’s outcome. Along with the campaigns, the Plastics Industry has filed Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits against activists and companies that combat plastic bag usage and/or support banning efforts.
While curbing plastic bag use has gone less hindered overseas, it remains to be seen if the AAC can truly halt the efforts to reduce plastic bags in the US. With the movement solidly rooted in Europe and heavy economic powers like China, it seems inevitable that the US will follow in tow.
Photo credit: zev.lacounty.gov/news/environment/finally-its-in-the-reusable-bag