Monday, October 12, 2015

Behind the Ban on Plastic Bags

Environmental concerns have been driving more municipalities, states, and even some nations to ban those lightweight one-use plastic bags given away free to store shoppers. As noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, "Regulating bags can mitigate harmful impacts to oceans, rivers, lakes and the wildlife that inhabit them. Reducing bag use can also relieve pressure on landfills and waste management." On the other hand, the New Scientist notes that these plastic bags are only a tiny part of the waste stream and unlikely to make a dramatic impact on the environment, saying: "Reducing use of plastic bags has a far greater social than environmental benefit."

With an eye toward cleaner streets, streams, and landfills, Denmark didn't ban the bags; instead, it began taxing them in 1994. Not surprisingly, Danish residents now use only four bags per year. 

The city of Austin, TX banned these lightweight bags and did find a decrease in such bags discarded in landfills. However, Austin also discovered an unintended consequence: people are now throwing away reusable plastic bags at a higher rate, and those bags take up nearly as much more space in landfills as the lightweight freebie bags.

Now Great Britain is forcing stores to charge for disposable plastic bags (5 pence each) to discourage their widespread use. Stores are being encouraged to give the money to charity, and the charge (which translates to about 8 cents per bag) is expected to influence consumer behavior to reduce the number of plastic bags being used and thrown away.

Some areas of the U.S. (including Portland, Maine) have retailers charging a nickel for each single-use bag. And in Portland, the use of reusable bags for shopping has increased, showing that consumer behavior can be shaped by a nickel here and a nickel there.

Meanwhile, a movement is growing to ban the bans. A California law to ban the bags has been delayed--and now the issue will go to voters in 2016 in the form of a statewide referendum. Will California ban or keep the bags? These environmental, political, and legislative concerns will have an effect on retail marketers, bag manufacturers, and the behavior and pocketbooks of consumers.

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