Science & Technology

Plastic Bag Taxes and Bans Are Working

Paper or plastic? You've probably heard the question approximately 2.589 billion times. But depending on where you live, that question might have changed in recent years to something like, "Do you want to buy a bag, or did you bring your own?" Now, it doesn't really seem like asking for a measly 5-to-7 cents for a bag could make too big of an impact on the planet — but as it turns out, it does.

The Problem with Plastic

The problem with plastic, of course, is that it takes a long, long, long time to decay. Those plastic bags you've collected over the years? You know, the ones you put in a giant ball inside your secret cabinet of shame? They're going to be around long after you've used them up and tossed them out, sitting in landfills and making their way into the oceans. There are few potential solutions to the problem, such as biodegradable plastics (which have some issues of their own) or recycling (which can be difficult, but there are some handy resources online). But recently, cities have been embracing a ban on plastic bags, or more accurately, a fine. As it turns out, people just aren't willing to pay for their plastic bags — not even a few pennies.

In 2015, the UK issued a new set of rules for plastic bags: all large shops (meaning they have more than 250 employees) would have to start charging 5p (about 7 cents) for each single-use plastic bag. And in 2018, Theresa May announced that the rules would start extending to shops of all sizes.

It seems to be working. According to a 25-year study published in Science of the Total Environment in 2018, the past couple of years have seen a sharp cut-off in plastic bag pollution in the North Sea. Just look at this chart:

a: Percentage of trawls containing plastic bags by year. b: Percentage of trawls containing plastic fishing items by year. Key to regional divisions: GNS-off, Greater North Sea offshore stations outside 12 nautical miles (nm); GNS-in, Greater North Sea inshore stations within 12 nm; CS-in, Celtic Sea inshore stations within 12 nm.

The line labeled "CS in," for example, represents boats that trawled the Celtic Sea — in 2010, they picked up at least one piece of plastic nearly 100 percent of the time, but in 2017, that number had dropped to below 20 percent. That's great news on its face, but it also has something to tell us: public policy has an immediate, measurable effect on the world. That's why it's so important for governments all over the world to step up with solutions such as plastic bag taxes, plastic bottle recycling drives, and other effective eco-friendly policies.

Bags to the Future

That doesn't mean the study paints a completely rosy picture. Since 1992, 63 percent of all boats dragging nets through the ocean pulled up at least one plastic object per trawl, and the researchers estimated that there were approximately 1,835 pieces of plastic per square kilometer distributed throughout the ocean surrounding the United Kingdom. And here's another bit of bad news: the actual amount of plastic in the ocean hasn't decreased since the fine was put in place, just the amount of plastic bags. For some reason, plastic bottles and other pieces of plastic litter seemed to increase even as the number of plastic bags went down.

But we can take a lesson from the impact we've had on the plastic bag problem. If we tackle other types of plastic with the same resolve, we could make a big dent in ocean pollution.

Even if your local store makes you pay for shopping bags, chances are they still hand out unlimited plastic produce bags. You can cut your reliance on those, too, by using reusable mesh produce bags. These ones have a drawstring closure and tags indicating their tare weight, which makes it easy on the cashier when they ring up your fruits and veggies. If you make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Plastic Bag Bans and Tracking Sharks

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 19, 2018

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