The ubiquitous plastic bag has been restricted in 127 countries of 192 reviewed.
The new report from the UN Environment and WRI states that the policies range from strict bans to more progressive phase-outs and incentives to use reusable bags.
📷: UN Environment / WRI
So why are we not seeing a decrease in plastic pollution?
One major factor stems from the uneven regulation of plastic bags worldwide, and that the largest consumers of plastic bags continue to do business as usual, and many exemptions exist where bans have been put in place. Here’s a breakdown of a few of the reasons why plastic bags continue to pollute our environment:
Reason #1 why plastic bag pollution isn’t decreasing: Most countries overlook the entire lifecycle of plastic bags
While 55 countries have a comprehensive restriction, most don’t, and only address the issue at point of retail. How about the rest of the plastic’s lifecycle? There is a need to act at all stages of production, distribution, use, collection, re-use, recycling, reprocessing and disposal. As well as imports and export restrictions? Take China for instance: keen to curb plastic bag usage in the country with import bans and encouragement for retailers to charge for plastic bag use, the country continues to massively export plastic bags!
Reason #2 why plastic bag pollution isn’t decreasing: A preference for partial bans and exemptions
The majority of the reviewed countries impose criteria for the types of bags allowed rather than imposing an outright ban. Given that recent studies show that bags in all form are a threat to the environment, supposedly biodegradable bags being even worse than their original counterparts, this doesn’t help the plastic pollution. In our opinion, bags used or sold in the context of serving a single-use should be banned, instead of focusing on metrics such as biodegradability or thickness.
Reason #3 why plastic bag pollution isn’t decreasing: Almost no one has banned plastic bag manufacturing
This seems rather simple: if you don’t want people using something, shouldn’t you ban the undesirable object from being made in the first place? While production volume limits are one of the most effective means of reducing plastics use, only ONE country, Cape Verde, has an enforced production limit, but still allows biodegradable and compostable plastic bags in the country.
Reason #4 why plastic bag pollution isn’t decreasing: Exemptions are numerous.
Of the 91 countries with explicit bans, 25 of them have exemptions for use such as permission for non-commercial use, less than a certain volume, handling and transport of perishable foods, scientific or medical use, waste management... other places exempt of restrictions include in instances of national security such as airports and duty-free shopping.
Reason #5 why plastic bag pollution isn’t decreasing: not enough rewards for reusables
To start with, over 90% of the reviewed countries failed to require that reusable bags be made from recycled content, and while there are small taxes or fees for consumers to pay for single use bags to dissuade use (which may or may not be significant enough to make shoppers opt out), there’s a significant lack of incentives for those who use reusable bags.
And in Singapore?
We are sadly quite far behind all these initiatives altogether with no bans or any sort on any plastics. NTUC was proud to talk of the plastic bag reduction they achieved through their one time campaign... but it doesn’t make much sense as it was only temporary. There is talk of a new approach whereby the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) would make producers responsible for the responsible management of their their products; already enacted in India and Australia. The EPR wants to avoid partial analysis and solutions and therefore requires producers to address all life cycle stages of their products.
As plastic production has doubled in the last 20 years and is expected to continue to increase, the world urgently needs to reduce its use of single-use plastic bags. How can we fight our dependence on plastics and encourage a global adoption of reusable alternatives? Not only do we need to improve the design and implementation of laws on a global scale, we also need to fond incentives for large producers of plastic to change their business models, as well as those currently heavily ordering plastics for their products. If we don’t, the latter will never watch to switch to reusables but instead hide behind the easy facade of recycling schemes and green-washing with eco-friendly alternatives which we know are more and more complicated to manage sustainably.