Plastic Bag Ban or Fee?

While my search for good business practices to reduce plastic bag waste yielded nothing, I discovered an ongoing war raging against the use of plastic bags which started in the early 2000. Plastic pollution is driving cities all over the World to take the hard stance against single-use plastic bag with either a complete plastic bag ban or a carry-out charge. Both strategies have been reported to yield significantly positive reduction in plastic bag use in the cities that have implemented them. But which is a preferred method?

Plastic Bag Bans

According to an article written by Jennie Romer for the Huffpost (Why Carryout Bag Fees Are More Effective Than Plastic Bag Bans), grocers and plastic bag makers in the US have contested plastic bag bans with lawsuits against the cities. Chicago recently scrapped its ban on plastic bags in favor for a 7-cent carry out fee because the ban just did not work. Stores simply upped their plastic bag thickness to 2.25 mils so as to pass as reusable bags, which are not banned by the way.

Another article written by Ben Adler for the Wired (Banning Plastic Bags Is Great For The World, Right? Not So Fast), had a different concern. He wrote “advocates of these laws and journalists who cover the issue often neglect to ask what will replace plastic bags and what the environmental impact of that replacement will be.” Consumers generally turn to paper bags which are degradable but have their own environmental consequences. Cotton reusable bags are a great alternative until we look at the amount of resources put into the cultivation of cotton crops and the production of these bags. Let us also not leave out the minor detail that cotton bags are currently not recycled anywhere.

So, banning plastic bags may not be the perfect solution. Some cities and nations around the World took the other route by adopting the practice of a fee for every single use bag. Though plastic bag bans result in the largest dip in plastic bag use,  it has also been found cities that charge a fee for every bag also record significant dips in plastic bag use.

The Ideal City Policy for Plastic Bags

Jennie Romer in her article on the Huffpost wrote, “either a bag fee on all bags or a ban/fee hybrid that covers all types of bags are the most effective methods to reduce overall bag consumption as well as avoid getting sued in the process.” I tend to agree with her because an option to use or not to use is given to the consumers. Simultaneously, the fee reminds consumers to be mindful about their use of plastic bags. It is just that much of a gentler legislation that should go down better with consumers and businesses. I would further suggest that an on-going campaign about plastics pollution will push plastic bag use even lower.

Ben Adler for the Wired, cited an Australian study which concluded that “the shift from one single-use bag to another single-use bag may improve one environmental outcome, but be offset by another environmental impact.” In other words, a ban is not the answer unless a viable plastic bag alternative is found. The same study also concluded that “the best option appears to be a reusable bag, but one made from recycled plastic, not cotton.

With these considerations, Ben Adler proposes that “the ideal city bag policy would probably involve charging for paper and plastic single-use bags, as New York City has decided to do, while giving out reusable recycled-plastic bags to those who need them, especially to low-income communities and seniors.” His consideration for the low-income communities stem from concerns by social activists who work with the low-income citizens in the US. While the low income community will benefit from the reduced plastic bag pollution, a bag fee will still be a burden to them, especially single working-moms who hold two jobs and have to do shopping in a rush. They will probably have no tote bag in hand.

Waste Management System – Incineration Plants

While bans and carry-out bag fees are catching on, Fabian Schmidt in his article for the Deutsche Welle, (Opinion: Plastic bag bans won’t save the environment), had a different take on the issue of plastic bag pollution. From his standpoint, if the concern for plastic bag use is its tendency to pollute our streets, forest and oceans, then he suggests that “the only viable solution is to develop a highly functional waste management plan – which leaves no way around modern waste incineration plants.” He cites Germany and Singapore as examples. Countries which have created an effective and very modern waste management system that involves incinerating the refuse that they collect.

My thought when I first read this article was one of full agreement. Being a Singaporean, of course I was proud of the fact that my country had it all figured out. But something about this just did not feel completely right. We all know that the problem with plastic bags is not just about pollution. The amount of resources and energy that is put into making these bags, most of which will only be used once in their entire life should not be dismissed. I am of the opinion that Singaporeans should still work towards reducing plastic bags use  for a sustainable future.

The Verdict

The verdict seem to be a resounding win for a fee instead of a ban. At the same time, efforts to encourage the use of reusable recycled plastic bags must be pursued. Finally, to reduce pollution, cities must look into a more effective waste management system that incorporates incineration plants to keep plastic bags out of the oceans, streets and forests.

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