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August 23, 2009 @ 3:20 pm
Mexico City Adds Itself to the Bag Ban List

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One thing I haven’t talked about much in the green building context is waste. There are benefits to be had from using recycled materials, using new materials more efficiently, converting waste to heat, composting, etc. Obviously, the article implies something much simpler, but beneficial – eliminating the scourge of plastic bags. It takes more than 1,000 years for the bags to decompose and they contaminate soil and water in the process. Any retailer who wants to be greener can easily contribute in this regard. Or can they?

Plastic bags require less energy and water to manufacture, ship and recycle than paper bags (4 times less for production, 85 times less for recycling) and take up less space in a landfill (about 90% of plastic bags aren’t recycled). However, if it takes 2 or 3 bags to do the equivalent work of one bag, the advantage lessens. Both types can be reused, but it’s hard to say which is or can be reused the most number of times. Then you have canvas or similar reusable bags. I would think that the long life of these bags would make them win out economically and environmentally even if their initial cost and carbon footprint is greater. According to a study cited by the Wall Street Journal, “A reusable bag is better for the environment regardless of what it is made from, as long as it is used at least four times (a 2004 study by the French retailer Carrefour).” Biodegradable, oil-free plastics will likely have a place in the market as well.

plastic-bags

Along with many other countries and metropolitan areas, Mexico City has now made it illegal for businesses to distribute non-biodegradable plastic bags (with 1 year grace period for compliance). For years, Mexico City has been known for choking air pollution and crowded living conditions, but the city has been pursuing more environmental improvement policies in recent years. According to the UN, plastic bags are the 2nd most common litter (after cigarette butts) on land and largest form in the oceans (endangering and/or killing thousands of sea animals). With a population of almost 20 million consumers, Mexico City’s bag ban should eliminate billions of bags and save millions of barrels of oil.

In the U.S., we have been the second largest (behind China) consumer of plastic bags – somewhere between 87.5 billion (2003 International Trade Commission report) and 380 billion (according to this article and others). If you’re laughing at the disparity in figures, don’t worry, so was I. The anti-plastic bag and pro-plastic bag supporters and lobbies are absolutely maniacal, greatly obscuring the facts in the process. I wanted to come up with an accurate barrel of oil comparison to see how much less we could import by eliminating plastic bag production. Alas, I couldn’t get believe anyone. The most neutral statistic seems to be about 12 million barrels per 100 billion bags. With the U.S. consuming about 20 million barrels a day that is less than 1% savings. From my research and experience acquiring a chemical/plastics company I gather many plastics are now derived from natural gas and other feedstocks rather than so much oil. Which makes sense because oil is a high value commodity and plastic bags are a low value product. At the other extreme, is an unsourced study that found 1.6 billion gallons used (over 38 million barrels at 42 gallons per barrel) based on the 380 billion bag number.

In any event, there is significant momentum against plastic bags. San Francisco was the first city to impose a ban in the Western Hemisphere (in 2007) and D.C. instituted a tax. Continue reading for many other global locations with plastic bag statutes.

Bag Bans, Taxes and Incentives Around the World

  • Australia – South Australia banned them this year
  • Belgium – tax imposed in 2007
  • China – banned in 2008; saving 37 million barrels of oil
  • Eritrea – banned in 2005
  • France – plans to ban by 2010
  • Germany – shoppers pay for bags
  • Holland – shoppers pay for bags
  • Himachal Pradesh, India – Himalayan state banned thinner bags in 2003
  • Ireland – banned in 2002; 37 cent per bag tax reduced consumption by 90%
  • Italy – taxed, ban scheduled for 2010
  • Kenya – thin bags banned, thicker ones taxed
  • Mumbai, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh – banned to prevent storm drain clogs during monsoon season
  • New Delhi – ban with significant fines to enforce it
  • Rwanda – banned in 2005
  • Somalia – banned in 2005
  • South Africa – thin bags banned, thicker ones taxed
  • Switzerland – shoppers pay for bags
  • Taiwan – banned in 2003
  • Tanzania – selling them was banned in 2006; enforced by up to 6-month jail sentence and a fine of 1.5 million shillings ($1,137, which is more than 2.5 times annual per capita income)
  • Uganda – thin bags banned, thicker ones taxed
  • United Kingdom – town of Modbury banned in 2007, others planned and Marks & Spencer eliminated free plastic bags in 2008
  • Whole Foods – eliminated plastic bags and instituted a 5-10 cent refund per reusable bag brought or for purchases carried out by hand (as I discovered recently when purchasing two fish fillets and a lemon)

Sources: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/04/080404-plastic-bags.html, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/7268960.stm

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2 Responses to “Mexico City Adds Itself to the Bag Ban List”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    Interesting. I wish all countries in the world would make illegal to have non-biodegradable plastic bags.

  2. GreenBldgBlog - Home Says:

    […] post on plastic bag bans proved popular, so I thought I would follow up with some interesting statistics […]

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