Our Love Affair With Single-Use Plastics Is Over

A woman in Monterey Park, California, carries her groceries in a plastic bag
Plastic bags may be convenient for us, but they're not terribly convenient for the environment. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Plastic bags and other single-use plastics are just about everywhere, but their days seem to be increasingly numbered.

As awareness of the dangers of plastic continues to rise — from the threat to wildlife to the fact that they aren't biodegradable — more groups are taking actions to limit their presence.

Of course, the war on plastic bags isn't new by any stretch. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban the use of thin plastic bags after it was discovered that a build up of the bags choked the country's drainage systems during flooding. In the almost 20 years since then, more countries and individual cities have taken action, including taxing the use of the bags or following Bangladesh's lead and outright banning them.

And the scope of the war is expanding beyond bags. Plastic straws, bottles, utensils and food containers are all fronts in this ongoing battle, as the convenience and low cost of single-use plastic items is outweighed by the negative impacts they cause.

South Korea and Taiwan leading the way in Asia

Grocery stores and supermarkets in South Korea no longer provide single-use plastic bags to shopper except to hold "wet" food like fish and meat. Instead, they are required by law to provide cloth or paper bags that can be either recycled or reused. The penalty for violating this law is a fine up to 3 million won (about $2,700 U.S.).

The Taiwanese government has announced plans to steadily phase out the use of plastic straws, bags, utensils, cups and containers by 2030.

The first phase is already underway. Fast-food chains no longer supply plastic straws for someone their meal meal inside the restaurant. By 2020, free plastic straws will be banned from all eating and drinking establishments. By 2025, the public will have to pay for to-go straws, and by 2030, there'll be a blanket ban on the use of plastic straws.

Other plastic goods, including plastic bags, utensils and food containers will face a similar phase-out process. If a retail company files invoices for uniforms, then that company will no longer be allowed to offer free versions of the plastic products after 2020. While that might seem like a loophole of sorts, it's one that will close by 2030 when a blanket ban on these products will be introduced.

The minister who oversees this program, Lai Ying-ying, emphasized this is more than just a job for the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency; the entire country, he said, needs to rally behind it if it's to be successful. It's a daunting challenge as the Taiwanese EPA estimates that a single Taiwanese person uses an average of 700 plastic bags a year.

Lofty goals in the European Union

An elderly man holds plastic bags as he walks inside a Greek public market
A man shops in a Greek public market. The Greek government banned free plastic bags at the start of 2018. Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

The European Union is following a similar path for its 28 member states in an effort to curb the use of plastics that "take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes and it takes 500 years to break down again," Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, the body responsible for managing the EU's day-to-operations, told The Guardian in January 2018.

Plenty of countries within the EU have their own plans in place to reduce plastic consumption, but the EU aims to have all packaging on the continent be reusable or recyclable by 2030. But first, they have to decide the best course of action.

The first step is an "impact assessment" to determine the best way to tax the use of single-use plastics. The EU also wants its member states to reduce the use of bags per person from 90 a year to 40 by 2026, to promote easy access to tap water on the streets to reduce the demand for bottled water and to improve states' ability to "monitor and reduce their maritime litter."

In January 2019, the member states confirmed a provisional agreement between the Council presidency and the European Parliament on single-use plastics. Several months earlier in October 2018, the parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban a wide range of single-use plastics in every member state. The European Parliament voted 571-53 to forbid the use of plastics such as plates, cutlery, straws, cotton buds and even "products made of oxo-degradable plastics, such as bags or packaging and fast-food containers made of expanded polystyrene." These plastics will be banned by 2021.

For other disposable items that don't have an alternative replacement, the EU ruled that member states have to reduce consumption by at least 25 percent by 2025. "This includes single-use burger boxes, sandwich boxes or food containers for fruits, vegetables, desserts or ice creams. Member states will draft national plans to encourage the use of products suitable for multiple use, as well as re-using and recycling."

Other plastic items like beverage bottles will have to be recycled by 90 percent by 2025 as well. Another goal is to reduce cigarette filters that contain plastic by 50 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2030. The EU also wants member states to ensure that ghost nets and other fishing gear are recycled by at least 15 percent by 2025.

All these regulations may seem overly ambitious in such a short time period, but Belgian European Parliament member Frédérique Ries, who is responsible for the bill, is optimistic these goals can be accomplished.

"We have adopted the most ambitious legislation against single-use plastics. It is up to us now to stay the course in the upcoming negotiations with the Council, due to start as early as November. Today’s vote paves the way to a forthcoming and ambitious directive," wrote Ries.

The United Kingdom, which is still in the process of Brexiting from the EU, likely won't be subject to these regulations. However, as Matt Hickman reports, there's a sizable effort to reduce use of plastic in that country as well.

Other nations following suit

Canada announced its plan for a ban of single-use items in June 2019, but it didn’t list specifics, saying it will focus on the scientific evidence first to identify the most harmful plastics.

New Zealand is systematically phasing out plastic bags. Grocery stores chains stopped offering them when a new law took effect in January 2019. already use Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the country would phase out plastic bags within a year.

"We’re phasing out single-use plastic bags so we can better look after our environment and safeguard New Zealand’s clean, green reputation," Ardern told The Guardian.

Ardern said many Kiwis welcomed the ban and cited a petition signed by more than 65,000 citizens calling for it. However, the same reaction can't be said for neighboring Australia.

Most territories and states in Australia have banned single-use, lightweight plastic bags except for New South Wales and Victoria — home to the country's largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

However, there was an uproar after Woolworth's and Coles, two large retail chains, tried to implement a ban on plastic bags. Many customers protested and after just several weeks Coles decided to sell reusable plastic bags for a small fee in lieu of the lightweight bags. "Some customers told us they needed more time to make the transition to re-usable bags," a Coles spokesperson told CNN.

Local Australian news outlets reported that some customers accused Coles of a marketing ploy by charging for reusable bags. The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association also reported in July that a Woolsworth employee was attacked by a customer who was upset over the ban. The organization surveyed 120 employees and found that 50 reported being harassed by customers.

Australia grocery store plastic bag ban
A sign, seen in a Coles supermarket, advises its customers of its plastic bag free in Sydney on July 2, 2018. PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

African countries have seen mixed success

Australia isn't the only the continent to experience various reactions to plastic bags. Africa has its own mix of success.

Plenty of African nations have engaged in curbing the use of plastic bags over the years. Some countries, including Gambia, Senegal and Morocco, have banned plastic bags, while others, like Botswana and South Africa, have instituted levies on plastic bags.

The success of these efforts vary from country to country; in fact, there's a black market for plastic bags in a few of them. The levy on thicker plastic bags in South Africa, for instance, has been a partial failure, according to a University of Cape Town study, due to the levy simply not being high enough, so consumers incorporate the cost into their purchases. Meanwhile, Rwanda saw an uptick in black market sales and smuggling of plastic bags following a 2008 ban. Police have set up checkpoints at various border crossings to search people for the contraband.

In perhaps the continent's longest-running plastic bag struggle, Kenya instituted the world's toughest ban on plastic bags in August 2017, with punishment ranging from steep fines to prison sentences. This represented the country's most severe attempt to ban the use of plastic bags over a 10-year effort. Even this, however, hasn't stopped the production of plastic bags, and night raids have been considered to disrupt the illegal manufacturing of plastic bags.

Bans tricky to navigate in the U.S.

Plastic utensils in a container
A few U.S. cities are making efforts to reduce the use of plastic utensils and straws. Kent Sievers/Shutterstock

This might not surprise you, but plastic bag politics in the United States are decidedly scattershot. Cities and their respective counties may end up with different policies in place, with cities acting ahead of their counties, which can cause confusion if you need to go shopping in one city on your way home to another city but you don't have any reusable bags with you. While a city may pass an ordinance banning plastic bags, the state could effectively overturn that ruling, which is what happened in Texas.

The city of Laredo banned plastic bags several years ago, but the Laredo Merchants Association challenged that decision saying the state's law, the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, protected a business' right to use plastic bags. The city argued that the statute fell under an anti-littering ordinance, and the case was taken up by the Texas Supreme Court. The court voted unanimously that the city law was invalid because the state's law usurps the city's. The court's ruling could ultimately affect other Texas cities that have also sought to ban plastic bags.

Other states, like Florida and Arizona, have banned the ban of plastic bags, while South Carolina stopped short of a similar ruling, saying it needed more time to find a statewide solution.

While the banning the ban approach eliminates confusion, it doesn't solve the environmental problem.

Even when a state ban is in effect, that may not be the end-all, be-all solution. California banned the use of plastic bags in grocery stories, retail stores with a pharmacy, food marts and liquor stores in 2016, but local municipalities that had bans in effect prior to Jan. 1, 2015, have been allowed to operate under their own laws, essentially superseding the state ban. The differences largely come down to the price charged for a paper bag. (The state ban requires a 10-cent charge for a paper bag.) In March 2019, New York became the second state to ban single-use plastic bags, with it's rule starting March 2020. As with California, there are some notable exceptions to the rule including trash bags, newspaper bags, garment bags and food takeout bags. Hawaii also arrived in the same place, albeit in a different manner: All of the counties within the state have banned use of the bags.

When you add in city laws, it's clear plastic bag bans are a moving target. To keep up, the National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a list of state and city legislative action on plastic bags.