Success stories on banning plastic bags are happening all over the world, including Asia, India, Australia, and Europe. Several Cities in the United States are also starting to ban single use plastic bags. Plastic bag bans have been initiated and implemented by governments, cities, non-profits, and environmental organizations.

Typically when people think of the plastic bag bans, they think of the marine life plastic kills. What they don’t realize is how much oil it takes to make those bags, and the other environmental hazards they cause in addition to threatening our own health and safety. Plastic bags block storm drains contributing to floods, leak toxic chemicals into our water and soil, as well as killing marine life, birds, and cows by starvation and suffocation. 1998, in Bangladesh, plastic bags were discovered to be the main cause of the devastating floods. There were over 1000 deaths in 1998 as two thirds of the country was submerged. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban all plastic shopping bags. Also, in the city of Mumbai, officials say storm drains clogged with littered plastic shopping bags were partially to blame for disastrous floods in 2005 that killed more than 400 people. Now in Mumbai, the plastic bags are totally illegal. In South Africa, before plastic bags were banned in 2003, the bags were nicknamed the national “flower” as so many bags littered the roadsides, stuck to fences and trees. That year, the government passed one of the strictest bans in existence: a fine of $13,800 dollars or a ten year jail sentence on bags thinner than 30 microns (thicker bags are easier to recycle) (Web 2011, Fair Companies).

In the United States, attempts by legislators to ban or restrict the use of plastic bags have been derailed several times in recent years by lobbying by plastics manufacturers. But recently, just as of October 15, 2011, the City of Portland has banned single-use plastic bags at major grocery outlets. A similar ban has gone into effect in cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In D.C., January of 2010, after a five-cent fee went into effect, the result was seen in only five months with a 60 percent reduction in plastic bag litter in the Anacostia River (2011, Washington City Paper).

In other countries, such as China, positive environmental effects were seen almost immediately. Only one year after the ban in China, it is estimated that 1.6 million tons of oil has been saved from not producing the plastic bags. The China Chain Store Franchise Association estimated it as saved the country of 40 billion plastic bags, reducing plastic bag use by two-thirds (2009, The Guardian).

In Ireland, in 2002, a tax was placed on every single bag in the country. This reduced plastic bag use by 90 percent in the first year and raised 18 million dollars for recycling efforts (2007, CNB News).

It is difficult to enforce the bag bans especially when they are not consistent and vary from city to city and state to state. A key part is public education and awareness. It is changing consumer habits. As more cities and people get on board, I believe we will see a growing positive change. Just think of all the oil, birds, cows, people, and marine life we have saved already. I believe the plastic bag ban is very sustainable as it encourages people to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Lisa Lynch, Portland Chapter, Surfrider Foundation

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