Tax drives plastic shopping bags from Ireland
In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them for their purchases must pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of those parts.
Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped by 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one dog.
Drowning in a sea of plastic bags, countries from China to Australia and cities from San Francisco to New York have in the past year adopted a flur asics ry of laws and regulations to address the problem, so far with mixed success.
New York City Council, for example, in the face of stiff resistance from business interests, passed a measure requiring only that stores that hand out plastic bags take them back for recycling.
In San Diego County, the Solana Beach City Council voted in December to outlaw plastic bags used for advertising, but no other cities are considering such a ban.
But in the parking lot of a Superquinn Market, Ireland largest grocery chain, it is clear that the country is well into the post plastic bag era.
used to get half a dozen with every shop. Now I never, ever buy one, said Cathal McKeown, 40, a civil servant carrying two large, black cloth bags bearing the bright green Superquinn motto. I forgot these, I just take the cart of groceries and put them loose in the boot (trunk) of the car, rather than buy a bag. McCartney, 50, a data processor, also has switched to cloth. tax is not so much, but it completely changed a very bad habit, he said. you never see plastic. The vast majority are not reused, ending up as waste in landfills or as litter. Because plastic bags are light and compressible, they constitute only 2 percent of landfill, but because most are not biodegradable, they will remain there.
In a few countries, including Germany, grocers have long charged a nominal fee for plastic bags, and cloth carrier bags are common. But they are the exception.
In the past few months, several countries have announced plans to eliminate the bags. Bangladesh and some African nations have sought to ban them because they clog fragile sewage systems, creating a health hazard. Starting this summer, China will prohibit sellers from handing out free plastic shopping bags, but the price they should charge is not specified, and there is little capacity for enforcement. Australia says it wants to end free plastic bags by the end of the year, but has not decided how to do so.
Efforts to tax plastic bags have failed in many places because of heated opposition from manufacturers as well asics as from merchants, who have said a tax would be bad for business. In Britain, Los Angeles and San Francisco, proposed taxes failed to gain political approval, though San Francisco passed a ban on plastic grocery bags last year. Some countries, like Italy, have settled for voluntary participation.
But there were no plastic bag makers in Ireland most bags there came from China and a forceful environment minister gave reluctant shopkeepers little wiggle room, making it illegal for them to pay for the bags on behalf of their customers. The government collects the tax, which is used to finance environmental enforcement and cleanup programs.
Furthermore, the environment minister told shopkeepers that if they merely changed from plastic to paper, he would tax those bags, too.
While paper bags, which degrade, are in some ways better for the environment, studies suggest that more greenhouse gases are released in their manufacture and transport than in the production of plastic bags.
Today, Ireland retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn accept it, said Sen. Feargal Quinn, founder of Ireland largest homegrown chain of supermarkets. I have become a big, big enthusiast. is also president of EuroCommerce, a group representing 6 million European retailers. In that capacity, he has repeatedly encouraged a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members aren buying it.
say: no, no. It wouldn work. It wouldn be acceptable in our country, Quinn said.
As nations fail to act take decisive actio asics n, some environmentally conscious chains have moved in with their own policies. Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains, such as IKEA, are charging or starting to charge customers for plastic asics bags.
But such ad hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax. Quinn said that when his Superquinn stores tried a decade ago to charge 1 cent for plastic bags, customers rebelled. He found himself standing at the cash register buying bags for customers with change from his own pocket to prevent them from going elsewhere.
After five years of the plastic bag tax, Ireland has effectively changed the image of cloth bags, a feat advocates hope to achieve in the United States. We want it to be seen as something a smart, progressive person would carry. things worked to Ireland advantage. Almost all markets are part of chains that are highly computerized, with cash registers that already collect a national sales tax, so adding the bag tax involved a minimum of reprogramming, and there was little room for evasion.
The country also has a young, flexible population that has proved to be a good testing ground for innovation, from cell phone services to nonsmoking laws. (It passed the first such law in Europe in 2004.)
Despite those favorable conditions, Ireland still ended up raising the bag tax to 33 cents last year from 23, after officials noted that consumption was rising slightly.
Ireland has moved on with the tax concept, proposing similar taxes on customers for ATM receipts and chewing gum. (The sidewalks of Dublin are dotted with old wads.)