There is a real war going on with plastic bags. A recent World Resources Institute and United Nations Environment Program report reported that at least 127 countries (out of 192 reviewed) have already passed laws to regulate plastic bags. These laws range from outright bans in the Marshall Islands to phasing out in places like Moldova and Uzbekistan.
However, despite increased regulations, plastic pollution continues to be a major problem. Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, harming underwater life and ecosystems and ending up in the food chain, threatening human health. According to , plastic particles are even found in human waste in Europe, Russia and Japan. According to the UN, pollution of water bodies with plastic and its by-products is a serious environmental threat.
Companies produce about 5 trillion plastic bags a year. Each of these can take over 1000 years to decompose, and only a few are recycled.
One of the reasons why plastic pollution continues is that regulation of the use of plastic bags around the world is highly uneven, and there are many loopholes for breaking established laws. Here are a few reasons why plastic bag regulations are not helping fight ocean pollution as effectively as we would like:
1. Most countries fail to regulate plastic throughout its life cycle.
Very few countries regulate the entire life cycle of plastic bags, from production, distribution and trade to use and disposal. Only 55 countries completely restrict the retail distribution of plastic bags along with restrictions on production and imports. For example, China bans the import of plastic bags and requires retailers to charge consumers for plastic bags, but does not explicitly restrict the production or export of bags. Ecuador, El Salvador and Guyana only regulate the disposal of plastic bags, not their import, production or retail use.
2. Countries prefer a partial ban over a complete ban.
89 countries have opted to introduce partial bans or restrictions on plastic bags instead of complete bans. Partial bans may include requirements for the thickness or composition of the packages. For example, France, India, Italy, Madagascar and some other countries do not have an outright ban on all plastic bags, but they ban or tax plastic bags less than 50 microns thick.
3. Virtually no country restricts the production of plastic bags.
Volume limits may be one of the most effective means of controlling the entry of plastics into the market, but they are also the least used regulatory mechanism. Only one country in the world – Cape Verde – has introduced an explicit limit on production. The country introduced a percentage reduction in the production of plastic bags, starting from 60% in 2015 and up to 100% in 2016 when a complete ban on plastic bags came into effect. Since then, only biodegradable and compostable plastic bags have been allowed in the country.
4. Many exceptions.
Of the 25 countries with plastic bag bans, 91 have exemptions, and often more than one. For example, Cambodia exempts small quantities (less than 100 kg) of non-commercial plastic bags from being imported. 14 African countries have clear exceptions to their plastic bag bans. Exceptions may apply to certain activities or products. The most common exemptions include the handling and transportation of perishable and fresh foodstuffs, the transportation of small retail items, use for scientific or medical research, and the storage and disposal of garbage or waste. Other exemptions may allow the use of plastic bags for export, national security purposes (bags at airports and duty-free shops), or agricultural use.
5. No incentive to use reusable alternatives.
Governments often do not provide subsidies for reusable bags. They also do not require the use of recycled materials in the production of plastic or biodegradable bags. Only 16 countries have regulations regarding the use of reusable bags or other alternatives such as bags made from plant-based materials.
Some countries are moving beyond existing regulations in pursuit of new and interesting approaches. They are trying to shift the responsibility for plastic pollution from consumers and governments to the companies that make the plastic. For example, Australia and India have adopted policies that require extended producer responsibility and a policy approach that requires producers to be held accountable for cleaning or recycling their products.
The measures taken are still not enough to successfully combat plastic pollution. Plastic production has doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to continue to grow, so the world urgently needs to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags.