- New York state lawmakers have approved a state-wide plastic bag ban, which will go into effect in March 2020.
- Similar bans are already in effect in California, Hawaii, and more than 32 countries. Some places tax plastic bags in lieu of a ban.
- Shoppers use 500 billion single-use plastic bags worldwide every year.
- These bags typically end up in landfills or the ocean. More than 100,000 marine mammals get entangled in plastic bags and die annually.
- Other cities and companies have also banned single-use plastic straws.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York legislature have approved a new fiscal budget that includes a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags.
When the ban goes into effect on March 1, 2020, New York will become one of three US states that doesn’t allow these bags. (The others are California and Hawaii.)
“The convenience of plastic bags is simply not worth the environmental impact,” New York State Assembly speaker Carl Heastie told the Associated Press. “By reducing our state’s usage, we will see less litter in our communities and less plastic pollution in our waterways.”
Shoppers worldwide use some 500 billion (yes, billion) single-use plastic bags annually. That’s roughly 150 bags per year for every person on Earth, according to the nonprofit group Ocean Crusaders. Strung end-to-end, that’s enough plastic to circle the globe 4,200 times.
On average, a plastic bag has only a 12-minute lifespan, according to Reusethisbag, an organisation that sells sustainable grocery bags.
Most bags wind up languishing in landfills, where they can remain for up to 1,000 years. Some make their way into the ocean.
Another type of single-use plastic – straws – are also being phased out in some places. In the US, 500 million straws are used daily. But California has banned restaurants from serving customers plastic straws unless they ask, and Seattle has axed them as well.
About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year on average, though the maximum amount could be closer to 14 million tons.
Plastic bags that wind up in the ocean entangle and kill roughly 100,000 marine mammals each year. Recently, a pregnant sperm whale washed up dead on the shores of Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Less than a month earlier, another dead whale was found to have ingested 88 pounds of plastic.
But while only three US states have taken steps to ban plastic bags, they’re already banned in 32 countries. Here are the cities and nations around the world that are tackling the growing threat of single-use plastic.
Most countries are taking the threat of plastic pollution seriously. According to a U.N. report, 127 countries had implemented some type of policy regulating plastic bags by July 2018.
The report showed that 27 countries have also enacted some type of ban on other single-use plastics like plates, cups, straws, or packaging.
Small island states have been disproportionately more likely to enact bans on single-use plastics, the report noted.
These efforts to cub plastic pollution aim to reduce the harm that plastic does to marine ecosystems and wildlife. The amount of plastic in the ocean could triple in the next decade.
Plastic bags, straws, and tiny plastic pieces called microplastics collect in giant ocean garbage patches, the largest of which is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This trash-filled vortex is more than twice the size of Texas.
Whales, in particular, are at extreme risk from plastic pollution.
Whales and other animals appear to be confusing plastic items for food and consuming them. This can lead to behavioural changes, strangulation, and death in marine animals.
The pregnant sperm whale that washed up dead this week in Sardinia with 50 pounds of plastic in its belly was one of at least five whales that have died from plastics around the world in the last two years, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh, which enacted the rule in 2002.
The country imposed the ban after officials discovered that the bags had blocked Bangladesh’s drainage system during devastating floods, the BBC reported.
Nearly two decades later, dozens of countries — including France, India, Mali, the Republic of the Congo, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea — also have bans in place.
Italy, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and French Guyana do, too.
Kenya has the strictest plastic bag ban of all. The punishment for breaking the law is up to four years in jail or fines up to $US40,000. Rwanda has a strict policy as well.
Kenya’s ban, enacted in April 2017, is touted as the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution. Kenyans producing, selling, or even using plastic bags risk imprisonment and fines.
Rwanda has a similar ban; illegal use of the bags can result in fines or jail time. The Rwandan law is so harsh, in fact, that it sparked a plastic bag black market, according to Al Jazeera America.
A Somali terrorist group also banned single-use plastic bags in the areas it controls.
Plastic-bag waste reached such high levels in China that citizens coined the term “white pollution.” The country adopted a full ban in 2008.
Since then, plastic bag waste has dropped by between 60-80%, according to Reusethisbag.
In 2018, the city of Montreal banned single-use plastic bags.
First-time offenders could face fines of up to $US1,000 for individuals and $US2,000 for corporations, GlobalCitizen reported.
The same year, Taiwan announced a plan to enact one of the world’s farthest-reaching bans on single-use plastic bags, straws, utensils, and cups.
The ban should be in place by 2030, according to Global Citizen.
New Zealand also announced a plastic bag ban in August 2018.
Store owners faced fines of up to 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($US67,500 US) if they didn’t phase the bags out within six months,New Scientist reported.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said that school children wrote to her about plastic more than any other subject.
“We’re taking meaningful steps to reduce plastics pollution so we don’t pass this problem to future generations,” she said at a press conference.
New York is slated to become the third US state to enact a state-wide plastic bag ban.
“With this ban, New York’s waters will be cleaner and safer for marine wildlife,” Wildlife Conservation Society spokesman John Calvelli said in a statement. “We look to other states and countries to follow New York’s lead.”
Interestingly, Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature blocked a suggested 5-cent tax on plastic bags last year.
But about 200 cities around the country have rules in place that forbid or tax plastic bags.
Those cities include Anchorage, Alaska; Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Maine; and Eugene, Oregon.
A US-based website called Ban the Bag helps users track pending and enacted bans in cities and counties.
Hawaii was the first state to ban plastic bags in the US.
But the ban isn’t state-wide. Instead, each of Hawaii’s five islands individually banned plastic bags at different times; the final ban took effect in 2015, according to Reusethisbag.
California, however, is the US leader in efforts to curb plastic pollution. In addition to the state’s ban on plastic bags, it has rules about limiting plastic straws as well.
California’s state-wide plastic bag ban went into effect in November 2016. The law bans single-use plastic bags and mandates a 10-cent charge for paper bags.
California’s new rules about plastic straws went into effect in 2019.
Restaurants are no longer allowed to automatically provide patrons with plastic straws, but can provide customers with straws if they ask. Violations can cost restaurants $US25 a day.
The city of Seattle, Washington also banned plastic straws in 2018.
Businesses there no longer give customers plastic straws or utensils – including forks, spoons, knives, and cocktail picks, according to the Seattle Times.
The European Parliament recently approved a law banning a wide range of single-use plastic items like straws, cotton balls, and cutlery.
The law was approved on March 29 and will go into effect by 2021.
“Today we have taken an important step to reduce littering and plastic pollution in our oceans and seas. We got this, we can do this,” Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Parliament, said in a press release.
Big companies are also taking steps to reduce plastic pollution. McDonald’s locations in the UK and Ireland will soon stop giving out plastic straws.
McDonald’s announced in June 2018 that the company would eliminate plastic straws in all of its UK and Ireland restaurants, and would be phasing in paper straws by September 2018.
Starbucks, too, announced its intention to stop using plastic straws.
By 2020, Starbucks will eliminate plastic straws from more than 28,000 company-owned and licensed stores around the world.
American Airlines and Alaska Airlines will be banning straws, too.
In May 2018, Alaska Airlines announced that it will “ditch plastic straws in favour of marine-friendly stir sticks.”
Two months later, American Airlines said it would follow suit, eliminating straws on flights and in its lounges.
Food-service giant Aramark, which operates in schools, prisons, and hospitals in 19 countries, also hopped on the straw ban bandwagon.
In July 2018, Aramark vowed to reduce its straw use 60% by 2020, while still making straws available to people with disabilities who need them.
Three hotel companies — Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott — are ditching or curbing the use of straws, too.
So are several theme-park and cruise companies, including SeaWorld Entertainment, Disney, and Royal Caribbean, according to NBC News.
Three months after two of Australia’s largest supermarket chains — Coles and Woolworths — banned plastic grocery bags in 2018, the country had cut its plastic bag use by 80%.
That’s an estimated 1.5 billion bags saved, according to Australia’s SBS News.
Instead of outright bans, some places are trying other incentive strategies. Washington, DC, for example, has a 5-cent plastic bag tax.
Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maine have bag recycling or re-use programs, according to Reusethisbag.
Bulgaria, Ireland, Denmark, and Sweden all have some type of bag tax as well.
According to the Independent, shops in Turkey will soon have to sell bags for a 5-cent fee as well.
Evidence so far suggests that these bans on single-use plastic straws and bags work.
Since San Jose, California enacted a plastic bag ban in 2012, there has been an 89% reduction in plastic bags in storm drains, a 60% reduction of bags in creeks and rivers, and a 59% drop in residential plastic waste, according to Reusethisbag.
San Francisco has saved a reported $US600,000 per year in plastic processing fees since enacting its ban in 2007.
And Seattle, which banned bags in 2012, has seen a 48% drop in residential plastic bag waste, and a 76% decline in commercial plastic bag waste. The amount of plastic bag waste in Seattle landfills also dropped by half between 2010 and 2014, Reusethisbag reported.
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