North & South - - Environment -

New Zealand lags be­hind in ban­ning or re­duc­ing sin­gle-use plas­tic shop­ping bags. At least 12 coun­tries and hun­dreds of states, cities and towns have out­lawed them; dozens more have im­posed a tax on their use.

In Rwanda – a land-locked East African coun­try where half the pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the poverty line – plas­tic bags are con­fis­cated at the bor­der. En­force­ment agents also cut the plas­tic wrap­ping from neg­li­gent trav­ellers’ suit­cases.

In China, where they de­scribe the ef­fects of dis­carded bags as “white pol­lu­tion”, a ban on ul­tra-thin plas­tic bags was in­tro­duced in 2008. Italy, In­dia, Tan­za­nia, Tai­wan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, Mace­do­nia and Brazil have also im­posed bag bans and re­stric­tions. The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment was the first to im­pose a ban in 2002, be­cause of safety haz­ards when bags blocked drainage sys­tems dur­ing the mon­soon.

All these coun­tries have one up on New Zealand, where – de­spite var­i­ous at­tempts – no laws have been passed to ban or charge for sin­gle-use bags. Closer to home, plas­tic bags are banned South Aus­tralia, Tasmania, the Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory and the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

In the United States, there is no na­tional ban, but Cal­i­for­nia – the state that has de­fied Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull out of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord – voted in Novem­ber last year to ban plas­tic bags state-wide. Many US towns have in­de­pen­dently im­posed their own bans.

In Europe, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment passed a di­rec­tive in 2014 to re­duce plas­tic-bag use by half by the end of this year, and by 80 per cent by 2019. Italy has banned the dis­tri­bu­tion of light­weight plas­tic bags not from biodegrad­able sources; France has banned bags un­der 50 mi­crons. The Nether­lands im­ple­mented a ban last year but ex­empted bags used for food prod­ucts, such as fresh fruit.

Plenty of other places have cho­sen not to ban plas­tic bags but to dis­cour­age their use by im­pos­ing a fee. Eng­land, North­ern Ire­land and Wales have a five-pence levy on all sin­gle-use bags. In the first half of 2015, when the charge was im­posed in Eng­land, the num­ber of sin­gle-use bags dropped by seven bil­lion. Den­mark, which in­tro­duced a tax in 2003, has the low­est plas­tic-bag use in Europe, with four bags per per­son a year. In coun­tries like Por­tu­gal, Poland and Slo­vakia, where there is no tax, each per­son on av­er­age uses 466 bags a year.

How­ever, the news isn’t all good. Nearly a decade after it im­posed its ban, Rwanda is strug­gling to com­bat a lu­cra­tive black mar­ket for plas­tic bags.

A sign at Ki­gali In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Rwanda, where a ban on plas­tic bags means they’re con­fis­cated at the bor­der.

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