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Taxes, fines and jail time: The strictest plastic bag laws around the world

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With increasing pressure on NSW to join the rest of Australia in pledging to 'ban the bag', SBS News looks at which countries have already taken action.

More than 40 countries have given the green light to either ban, partly ban, fine or tax individuals and companies using single-use plastic bags to better protect the environment.

“It’s a big issue,” Sarah Thompson from environmental foundation Planet Ark told SBS News.

“It’s great to hear countries in developing parts of the world already doing this.”

“Australia needs to step up and join the countries already doing it.”

Here’s how far some of the countries have gone in imposing regulations.

Countries who have total or partial plastic bans implemented. (Countries using bag taxes not included).
Countries who have total or partial plastic bans implemented. (Countries using bag taxes not included). Data supplied by Reuters as of 2017.
SBS News

AFRICA: Jail time and massive fines 

African nations have led the way in the plastic bag movement with more than 15 countries either banning the bag completely or imposing a tax on using them. 

South Africa was the first to issue a ban after declaring the plastic bag had become their ‘national flower’. This was due to the amount of bags turning up in trees and bushes as litter. In 2003 South Africa announced fines of 100,000 rand ($AUD11,000) or a 10-year jail term to show they were serious about the issue. At the time the government claimed the country of 55 million people was using about eight billion plastic bags per year.

In 2017 Kenya topped South Africa’s tough stance on bags by making producing, selling and even using plastic bags illegal. To make sure the message hit home, Kenya imposed a maximum fine of $AU56,000 – making it the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution. Its ban aimed to reduce the impact on wildlife, combat increased cases of malaria (the bags were thought to be breeding grounds for the disease) and fight land pollution. When the ban came into force, Kenya-based marine litter expert Habib El-Habr told The Guardian that if the world continued without doing something about plastic bags “by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish.”

Not everyone was pleased with Kenya’s tough measures though - Samuel Matonda, a spokesman for the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, warned the ban would see 60,000 jobs lost and force 176 manufacturers to close. To help consumers, supermarkets have started offering customers cloth bags as alternatives.

The North African country of Morocco was once considered the world’s second-largest consumer of plastic bags following the United States, according to Greenpeace. But since 2016, Morocco has stopped the production, import, sale and distribution of plastic bags. It took a while for consumers to adjust though; initially the ban – dubbed Zero Mika (zero plastic) - resulted in a “plastic panic” where the public stockpiled bags just before the ban came into place. Eventually, habits changed and Moroccans took to using cloth bags. In 2017 press agency AFP reported Moroccan authorities had seized about 420 tonnes of plastic bags illegally in use in the year since the ban came into effect.

Mauritania, a country in North-western Africa introduced a crackdown on plastic bag use to prevent mass sheep and cattle deaths related to plastic ingestion. Meanwhile, Ethiopia passed a ban in 2011 preventing manufacture and import of single-use bags as part of the Ethiopia Green Growth Strategy.

Other African countries that have bans or taxes in place include Rwanda, Mali, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Morocco, Botswana.

ASIA: The ‘white pollution’ problem

Bangladesh was the first country in the world to introduce a ban on plastic bags in 2002. The decision was made in response to the need to protect their sewage systems and avoids future flooding disasters.

A Polythene Bag Prohibited Zone in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India.
A Polythene Bag Prohibited Zone in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Getty

According to Reuters, half of India’s states and territories have imposed blanket bans on plastic bags. But it hasn’t been easy.

In 2017, the capital Delhi banned all forms of disposable plastics including bags, cutlery, cups, plates and other single-use items. Further south in Karnataka, a complete ban across the state was introduced by the government in 2016. Here, no wholesaler, retailer or trader can use or sell single-use plastic items.

Some states such as Goa and Gujarat have also introduced partial bans in areas surrounding religious, historic or nature sites. The government of Jammu and Kashmir in the far north has banned bags made of the most common plastic polythene, but some shopkeepers were still being found to be selling their goods in plastic carrier bags. “If the government is serious about stopping the use of polythene, it should ban its manufacturing. That will force people to carry their own bags,” Srinagar based shopkeeper Abdul Rashid told Reuters earlier this year. 

A shopkeeper selling medicines in paper bags in Pune, India.
A shopkeeper selling medicines in paper bags in Pune, India.
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In 2008, prior to the Beijing Olympic Games, China banned shops nationwide from giving out free plastic bags, asking consumers to use baskets and cloth bags instead to fight their “white pollution” problem (referencing the colour of the bags).

According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission within a year of the ban being in place, the number of plastic bags used in supermarkets was lowered by 66 per cent; that’s 40 billion bags. But the order’s effectiveness has been questioned over the years with many shopkeepers and street vendors violating the ban without punishment.

Nine years after it came into effect, a comment piece in the People’s Daily highlighted that compliance of the law was not great and many citizens were opting to purchase plastic bags commonly available for a minimal amount in larger stores. It also noted that smaller stores were still providing free bags in some cases, blatantly ignoring the law. 

China has also banned imports of plastic waste from the start of 2018 which means the UK, US and Australia are no longer able to send their plastic waste to China, forcing them to rethink their domestic recycling methods. Before the ban, China was considered the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste.

Pilgrims walk on plastic bags which are used to pack incense, candles and joss papers at a temple on February 7, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China.
Pilgrims walk on plastic bags which are used to pack incense, candles and joss papers at a temple on February 7, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China.
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Myanmar’s largest city Yangon did away with high-density polyethene plastic bags in 2011 following an order from the Yangon City Development Committee. The government also threatened legal action and licencing cancellations for polythene bag factories which failed to close. The move followed the city of Mandalay’s decision to ban polythene bags to protect the environment.

Hong Kong introduced a levy in 2015 requiring all retailers to charge customers at least HKD0.50 ($0.08AUD) for a plastic bag. The aim was to encourage a habit of “bring your own bag” within Hong Kong’s society. The government is taking the levy seriously; in 2016 a grocer was fined $HK5,000 ($AUD827) for failing to charge customers for plastic bags. He was the first to be charged for not adhering to the law.

Indonesia has pledged up to $AUD1.29 billion a year to reduce plastic waste from polluting its waters. The country has used a nationwide campaign to allow retailers to charge consumers up to $AUD0.48 for a plastic bag.

Other Asian countries that have bans or taxes in place include Malaysia, Cambodia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

EUROPE: EU deadline looms 

The European Union is requiring an 80 per cent reduction of plastic bags by 2019 forcing many countries to change their plastic habits. 

Denmark was the first European country to begin charging a tax on plastic bags in 1993, it’s claimed that following the tax, usage quickly halved from about 800 million to 400 million per year.

France was the first country in the world to ban disposable plastic cups and plates. It also imposed a total ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarket checkouts in 2016 as part of the “Green Growth” plan to cut landfill waste and reduce greenhouse emissions.

The country’s goal is to have all disposable tableware to be made from 50 per cent biologically-sourced materials that can be composted at home by January 2020. It hopes to further that to 60 per cent by 2025.

According to the French Association of Health and Environment, 150 single-use cups were thrown away every second in France before the ban came into effect. In 2016, France 24 reported five billion plastic bags were handed out each year in the country, and 12 billion was used in the produce section of stores. In 2017, France also imposed a ban on plastic bags used for produce.

In 2002, Ireland gained worldwide attention for imposing a “bag tax”, forcing customers to buy plastic bags. The effect was seen almost immediately, within weeks there was a 90 per cent drop in plastic bag use and litter reduction. In 2007, in response to a rise in bag usage Ireland raised the tax again to 0.22 euro (AUD0.35).

Other European countries that have bans or taxes in place include: England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Italy and Germany.

AMERICAS: Anti-bag movements on the rise 

The United States is yet to introduce a blanket ban on single-use plastic bags but there are some anti-bag regulations in certain states and cities. In 2014, the state of California became the first in the US to ban plastic bags and charge for paper ones. San Francisco was the first US city to ban plastic shopping bags in 2007 and in 2014 they also banned plastic water bottles on city properties. New York City charges a five cent (AUD) fee for every bag used there. The city of Chicago also banned plastic bags in 2014 and Washington and Dallas have imposed a bag tax, charging for both paper and plastic bags. In 2015, Honolulu in Hawaii banned single-use bags but excluded the use if it was deemed for medical reasons.

Plastic grocery bags are piled into a grocery cart on November 17, 2010 in La Crescenta, California.
Plastic grocery bags are piled into a grocery cart on November 17, 2010 in La Crescenta, California.
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In Canada, single-use plastic bags are no longer used in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Manitoba provinces. In 2018 the city of Montreal announced plans to further eliminate plastic bags, including bio-degradable bags, after it was revealed Quebecers use two billion bags per year. The Montreal-specific ban will include a fine of up to $2,000 ($AU2,030) for retailers and $4,000 for companies.

In South America, Chile became the first Latin American country to ban single-use plastic bags in coastal areas in 2017. Last year, then-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told the United Nations General Assembly the ban would “allow the public to contribute towards protecting the oceans.” In October 2017, Bachelet signed a bill which banned the sale of single-use plastic bags in 102 coastal villages and towns. Businesses found to be ignoring the law could face an $AU380 fine. Before the ban, Chile’s Environment Ministry said the country used more than 3.4 billion plastic bags per year with 97 per cent ending up in landfill, illegally dumped or in oceans.  

ArgentinaBrazil, and Colombia have all also pledged to reduce single-use plastic bag use, implementing plans to only use biodegradable bags and boost recycling incentives. 

AUSTRALIA: Will NSW join 'bag-free' nation?

Tasmania started the ban the bag movement in Australia with the town of Coles Bay banning single-use plastic bags in 2003. According to Greenpeace, in the first year of the ban there were 350,000 fewer plastic bags used in the area. The rest of Tasmania caught up ten years later, issuing a state-wide ban in 2013. 

South Australia was the first state to issue a blanket ban in 2009, hitting retailers with fines of up to $5000 for distributing banned bags and retailer suppliers with fines of up to $20,000.

Environmental shopping bags are seen at the Thebarton Foodland on May 4, 2009 in Adelaide, Australia.
Environmental shopping bags in the back of a car outside the Thebarton Foodland in Adelaide, Australia.
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The ACT and Northern Territory introduced similar laws in 2011.

In 2017, the Victorian government announced its plans to ban the bags “as soon as possible”.

Queensland and Western Australia have promised to ban the bag in 2018.

Currently, New South Wales is the only Australian state not making the move to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2017, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called on NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to match Victoria’s ban. The Greens and Greenpeace have also increased their pressure for NSW to follow suit in the last few months. 

Despite the resistance, Australia’s major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths – including those in NSW - have promised to eliminate free disposable plastic bags from their stores by the end of June 2018. Other supermarkets including Aldi and Harris Farm already have bag-free policies in place.

Sarah Thompson from environmental foundation Planet Ark told SBS News the supermarkets were responding to consumer demand to ban single-use plastic bags and hoped to see a nation-wide ban implemented in the future.

Ms Thompson said as consumers were becoming increasingly environmentally aware, there was more pressure on retailers and governments to act on the plastic bag issue.

“The less (single-use bags) we have in the environment the better,” she said.

“It’s really important to make sure less plastics end up in the environment. I think this is just the beginning. There’s so much retailers and consumers can do.”

Ms Thompson said Australian consumers could help by buying recycled materials and re-using durable plastic or cloth bags when shopping.

“It’s been proven these more durable bags are a better solution … they are less flimsy, less likely to be thrown away and easier to reuse.” 

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