Americans go through an astounding 92 to 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually, according to various sources. Many locations, such as grocery stores, accept their plastic bags back at the store for recycling, but it’s estimated that only about 5% are actually recycled. So what is the fate of the remaining 95%? Well of course some end up littering roadways and waterways, especially around urban areas. The bags are unsightly and potentially hazardous to wildlife who can mistake them for food and ingest them. About 10 percent of all bags make their way into the ocean and due to currents contribute to huge patches of floating plastic waste like the one in the North Pacific Central Gyre. But the vast majority end up as “trash” in landfills where they leach toxins into the soil, groundwater, and air as they degrade. Or worse, they are burned in incinerators releasing carcinogenic dioxins into the air that we breathe. There is also a production cost: it takes 1 gallon of petroleum oil to make between about 25 and 40 plastic bags, depending on size.
The reason this bag problem is ongoing is that plastic bags are free and the cost of cleanup are externalized. If you put the environmental costs into the bags and make people pay upfront for them, as sort of “PlasTax”, then plastic bag use magically goes way down as people switch to a biodegradable option or reusable tote. Individual retailers have discovered this neat trick as a way to save money on supplying bags to their stores. Aldi, Ikea, Fred Meyer, Loblaw, and Marks & Spencer are just some of the retailers around the world charging customers for plastic bags. Walmart and other retailers are running plastic bag charge pilot programs.
Other larger efforts have also been undertaken in recent years. In 2007, San Fransisco outlawed petro-plastic bags in grocery stores and drug stores in favor of paper, bio-degradable cornstarch, and reusable totes. The results thusfar are estimated to be a 50% reduction in plastic bag litter on the streets. Just this year, Washington DC instituted a 5 cent per bag charge, resulting in an 86% drop in bag usage and $150,000 in its first quarter year. In 2008, China instituted a ban on free plastic bags, reducing bag usage by an estimated 66%. In 2002, Ireland introduced a fee of 22 euro-cents (~29 cents USD) per bag which resulted in a 90% drop in their use, plus it raised a 9.6 million euro fund that year to benefit the environment. Other countries around the world, such as Bangladesh, India, Australia, Greece, Israel, Italy, South Africa, and Taiwan have also instituted taxes or bans on plastic bags. Is it now time for a PlasTax in your city?