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Bag litter be gone

The days of ultracheap, free plastic bags, given away at the point-of-sale at retailers, supermarkets and other stores, may be numbered. Good riddance.


Legislation generally is a terrible instrument for meddling with markets, especially ones not directly related to people’s health and safety; supply-and-demand does a much better job of regulating most business affairs. Still, and while it may be heresy in a magazine devoted to the plastics industry to support moves which could hinder such a widespread application, those cheap bags handed out for free at food stores and retailers too often end up as a blight upon the landscape, and steps to end this plague of litter deserve to be on politicians’, and the plastics industry’s, agenda.
Ultrathin bags are a cheap plastic application, with all of the negative implications of cheap; they barely fill the function for which they are created. You can bet that the bag holding the eggs will be the one whose handles rip. Arguments that paper bags tossed into landfills give off methane, and therefore are a poor substitute for plastics, miss the point: Why should any product that eventually will have a harmful affect on the environment be offered to consumers for free? Fix the problem. For thin plastic bags, that means limiting their potential to end up as litter.
Within the span of a few days in January, and in just the latest wave of anti-plastic bag announcements, multiple announcements around the world were made to do just that. Most significantly, China’s government announced it would launch a ban on the production, sale, use, and even export of plastic bags thinner than 25 µm, and also ban handing out plastic bags for free at shops. Retailers can charge customers for bags. The new law is to take effect June 1.
Rather than a ban, the New York City Council’s Plastic Carryout Bag Recycling Law, also announced last month, will encourage recycling by requiring any store in New York that offers bags for free and is larger than 5000 ft², as well as all branches of chain stores with more than five locations in the city, to place recycling bins for the bags in a prominent place in stores.
During the same week, Australia’s Minister of the Environment, Peter Garrett (who, for those who don’t follow Australia’s politics too closely, may be better known as the former lead singer of rock band Midnight Oil), confirmed in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that he will move to phase out plastic check-out bags “by the end of the year” —if necessary with a legislative ban.
Of course, no product is destined to become litter; people acting irresponsibly create litter. At issue is how best to encourage responsible behavior. Most people, given the choice, want to do right. An outright ban on the bags, such as China’s government is planning, is the wrong answer to the problem and doesn’t allow this fundamental fact of human nature to blossom. But forcing consumers to pay for the bags might well encourage appropriate behavior. Even better may be a step such as NYC’s recycling bins, which will enable people to do the right thing without creating an unnecessary burden in their lives. Time will tell which step works best at slowing littering. Important is that steps are being made.
Matt Defosse, Editor-in-Chief
TAGS: Business
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