Chile Boldly Bans Single-Use Plastics

The law cracks down on disposable food packaging, mandates refillable bottles.

litter on ground in Chile
Garbage litters the ground in front of a 'Do Not Litter' sign in Chile.

Getty Images/reisegraf

Chile is getting serious in the fight against single-use plastics. After banning plastic bags from grocery stores in 2018, it passed a law to eliminate single-use plastic packaging and implements from eating establishments across the country.

The new law takes effect at the end of 2021, and six months after that, all restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other food-based businesses will no longer be able to provide disposable items like plastic cutlery, drinking straws, stirrers, and chopsticks, including Styrofoam. 

Within three years it will be mandatory for all food retailers to provide reusable products for dine-in customers and non-plastic disposable products for takeout customers. These could be items made from aluminum, paper, or cardboard.

The law will limit the sale of disposable plastic beverage bottles, requiring all supermarkets, convenience stores, and grocers to sell and receive returnable bottles for both in-person and online sales. After three years, these stores can display no less than 30% returnable bottles on their beverage shelves. 

Carolina Schmidt, Minister of the Environment, called the law's approval "a milestone for the care and protection of the Chilean environment." She went on to say, "It is a responsible bill, but an ambitious one that allows us to be accountable for over 23,000 tons of single-use plastics a year generated by businesses such as restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and delivery services."

Senator Guido Girardi, who helped submit the bill, added that this regulation allows Chile to move toward a circular economy. "Just as we’re experiencing the climate change crisis, we are experiencing a more silent one, which is plastic pollution in oceans, making it very important to reduce its production, Girardi said. "One way to do that is to put an end to plastics that are nonessential, such as those regulated by this law."

The law was first proposed in May 2019, supported by non-profit organizations Oceana and Plastic Oceans Chile. It received unanimous backing by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies and was endorsed by the Ministry of the Environment. This broad support shows that people understand the severity of the plastic pollution crisis and are eager for policy changes that can make a difference.

Javiera Calisto, Legal Director of Oceana Chile, tells Treehugger that Chile has a serious problem with generating waste. "The richer countries are, the most waste they produce. Chile is generating waste as it were an over-developed country, which does not match its GDP. The answers to face these problems are weak," says Calisto. "For example, only 8% of plastics are recycled, whereas in Europe it's 30%. The law that bans single-use plastics and the so-called recycling law seek to decrease the generation of waste and make waste producers responsible to assess it."

Regulation won't fix everything, though. This law will require a cultural shift from Chileans, a willingness to give up a degree of convenience for the longer-term goal of waste reduction. People will need to eat less on the go, sit down for their coffees and lunch breaks, plan in advance how they're going to transport food, and remember to return refillable containers. An initiative like this requires added awareness, but the end result makes it worthwhile.