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The world is battling plastic bags—but the USA is an anomaly


Zainub Razvi | CC BY-SA 2.0

Paul De Maeyer - published on 09/05/18

Ten states have introduced laws that ban the banning of plastic bags.

Plastic is a very practical material, and consequently, it’s omnipresent in our daily lives. Indeed, it can be given any shape; the word plastic itself means “easily molded.” In addition, it’s very light, and almost indestructible.

It is precisely this last characteristic that makes plastic (or better, “plastics,” because there are actually many different kinds) highly problematic, from an environmental perspective. Not only does it decay very slowly; it breaks down into so-called “microplastic,” which ends up in the food chain and then on our tables as well.

In fact, microplastic is even present in our drinking water, whether from the tap or from a bottle, and it’s also ingested by many marine organisms, such as krill. These tiny crustaceans, which are the staple food of many marine animals, are able to transform microplastics, through their digestive process, into “nanoplastics.” It’s a “a previously unidentified dynamic in the plastic pollution threat,” observed Bengtson Nash of Griffith University, Queensland (Australia), quoted by La Repubblica.

Grocery bags

The most problematic use of plastic is the classic plastic bag used for groceries, as well as the lighter plastic bags used in supermarkets (at least, in the past; many European countries, including France and Italy, have banned them) for fruit and vegetables.

According to the Priceonomics website, approximately 500 billion of these bags are used per year worldwide, and each bag is used for an average time of just 12 minutes—that is to say, the brief period of time needed to carry the groceries from the supermarket or store to the person’s home.

When these bags are thrown out, explains Priceonomics, not only do they jam up sewer systems and drains, but they also kill, according to estimates, nearly 100,000 marine mammals every year (by suffocation or intestinal blockage, for example) and pollute the seas and the environment (including landfills) for as long as a thousand years.

Anti-plastic legislation

In order to deal with the pollution caused by plastic bags, many nations around the world have introduced legal measures to slow or stop their circulation. Up to now, 32 countries—more than half of them (18) in Africa—have banned them outright. Some names that stand out on the list, besides France and Italy, are Cameroon, India, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Senegal.

The most drastic ban is, by far, that enacted in Kenya. Indeed, anyone who produces, sells, or imports plastic bags risks a fine of up to $19,000 or four years in jail, Priceonomics explains. The fact that Africa is at the top of the list of “prohibitionists” is due in part to hygienic-sanitary concerns: blocked drainage pipes increase the risk of malaria outbreaks. In India, the ban introduced in 2002 also has a religious motivation: up to 20 cows (considered sacred in the Hindu religion) die every day in that country after having ingested plastic bags.  

Other nations have chosen instead to introduce a special tax on plastic bags. Such is the case in 18 countries, including Botswana, Bulgaria, Denmark, South Africa, Sweden, and Turkey. There are 17 countries which have introduced only a partial tax or ban, including Brazil, Japan, Somalia, and Spain.

The anomaly of the United States

This panorama is not too dark, in the sense that at least 67 countries around the world have introduced legislation against plastic bag pollution—but the USA is conspicuous in its absence in this regard. As pointed out by the Priceonomics website, the situation in the United States is an anomaly and goes against the tide. Indeed, only two states in the Union have made laws banning the use of the infamous disposable plastic bags: Hawaii and California. And while Washington, D.C. has introduced a tax on the use of plastic bags, four states—Delaware, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island—have initiated programs for recycling and reusing the bags.

Ten other states—and this is the great anomaly—have, instead, laws that ban the banning of plastic bags: 10 states in which, the Priceonomics website says, “the plastic industry’s heavy lobbying paid off.” The states are (in alphabetical order): Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

In three of these states—Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri—the law “inexplicably” bans individual cities or counties from banning plastic bags, observes Mercury News in an editorial published last November.

Anti-plastic laws are effective

In the editorial, Mercury News points out that California’s decision to reduce the mountain of plastic works—and how! Indeed, the number of plastic bags collected during the most recent Coastal Clean-up Day, organized annually in September, was 72 percent lower last year than in 2010. Plastic bags are now only 1.5 percent of all the trash collected during the event, whereas in 2010 they constituted 10 percent.

Before the 2016 referendum and the California electorate’s “yes” to Proposition 67, the plastic industry sold 15 billion disposable plastic bags to consumers in the Golden State, consuming nearly 2 million barrels of oil, Mercury News reveals. Of this vast sea of plastic, Californians only recycled 3 percent.

Another example is China, where, according to Priceonomics, the situation was so bad that “it led to the coining of the term ‘white pollution.'” With the ban, adopted 10 years ago, “plastic bag waste has dropped by 60% to 80%, an effective reduction of some 40 billion bags,” according to the website.

Saving the oceans

As already mentioned, the impact of plastic pollution on the seas and oceans is enormous. According to a study published in Current Biology magazine and carried out by the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, only 13 percent of the world’s oceans are still considered “wilderness.” They’re very vulnerable areas, because the majority of them are not protected, the report warns.

Indeed, veritable islands of plastic trash are floating on the oceans’ surface. The most alarming example is the Pacific Trash Cortex, located half-way between California and Hawaii. According to the Ocean Cleanup foundation, the gigantic blotch is made up of approximately 1.8 trillion plastic fragments, the largest of which (megaplastics, 50cm in size or larger) make up 53 percent of the “island’s” mass. Numerically, the largest category in this “soup,” also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is that of the infamous microplastics (from .05 to .5cm in size), which make up 94 percent of the total, or nearly 1.7 trillion pieces.

Next September, the foundation, started by Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old from Holland, will launch a controversial project to free the Pacific Ocean from at least part of this pollution. The goal is to “clean up 50% of the patch in five years,” Slat told Business Insider. There is no lack of skeptics. Various experts believe that the system proposed by the foundation will not work, and might even cause more harm than good.

One thing is clear, though. Something has to be done, because “the oceans are the common heritage of the human family,” as stated in the letter sent in Pope Francis’ name by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to the participants in the Fourth International Conference on “Our Ocean, an Ocean for Life,” which took place in October 2017 in Malta. In the document, the Pontiff invites all to “work with greater responsibility to safeguard our oceans, our common home, and our brothers and sisters, today and in the future.”

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