Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags

New_york_times_logo_jpegOriginally posted Feb. 2, 2008
By Elisabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times

There is something missing from this otherwise typical bustling
cityscape. There are taxis and buses. There are hip bars and pollution.
Every other person is talking into a cellphone. But there are no
plastic shopping bags, the ubiquitous symbol of urban life.

Motivated_jpeg
In 2002, Ireland
passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now 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
these parts.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 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’s dog.

“When
my roommate brings one in the flat it annoys the hell out of me,” said
Edel Egan, a photographer, carrying groceries last week in a red
backpack.

Drowning in a sea of plastic bags, countries from
China to Australia, cities from San Francisco to New York have in the
past year adopted a flurry of laws and regulations to address the
problem, so far with mixed success. The 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.

But in the parking lot of a
Superquinn Market, Ireland’s largest grocery chain, it is clear that
the country is well into the post-plastic-bag era. “I used to get half
a dozen with every shop. Now I’d never ever buy one,” said Cathal
McKeown, 40, a civil servant carrying two large black cloth bags
bearing the bright green Superquinn motto. “If I forgot these, I’d just
take the cart of groceries and put them loose in the boot of the car,
rather than buy a bag.”

Gerry McCartney, 50, a data processor,
has also switched to cloth. “The tax is not so much, but it completely
changed a very bad habit,” he said. “Now you never see plastic.”

In January  almost 42 billion plastic bags were  used worldwide, according to reusablebags.com;
the figure increases by more than half a million bags every minute. A
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 since 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 sewerage 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.

Efforts to tax plastic bags have failed in many
places because of heated opposition from manufacturers as well 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 last year. Some countries,
like Italy, have settled for voluntary participation.

But there
were no plastic bag makers in Ireland (most bags here 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 customers. The government collects the tax, which finances
environmental enforcement and cleanup programs.

Furthermore, the environment minister told shopkeepers that if they 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 transportation than in the production of plastic bags.

Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags.
“I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I
thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Senator Feargal Quinn,
founder of the Superquinn chain. “But I have become a big, big
enthusiast.”

   

Mr. Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce,
a group representing six million European retailers. In that capacity,
he has encouraged a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members are
not buying it. “They say: ‘Oh, no, no. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be
acceptable in our country,’ ” Mr. Quinn said.

As nations fail to act decisively, some environmentally conscious chains have moved in with their own policies. Whole Foods Market
announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable
plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains
are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

But such ad
hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax. Mr.
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 changed the image of cloth bags, a
feat advocates hope to achieve in the United States. Vincent Cobb, the
president of reusablebags.com, who founded the company four years ago
to promote the issue, said: “Using cloth bags has been seen as an
extreme act of a crazed environmentalist. We want it to be seen as
something a smart, progressive person would carry.”

Some things
worked to Ireland’s 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 cellphone services to nonsmoking
laws. Despite these favorable conditions, Ireland still ended up
raising the bag tax 50 percent, after officials noted that consumption
was rising slightly.

Ireland has moved on with the tax concept,
proposing similar taxes on customers for A.T.M. receipts and chewing
gum. (The sidewalks of Dublin are dotted with old wads.) The gum tax
has been avoided for the time being because the chewing gum giant
Wrigley agreed to create a public cleanup fund as an alternative. This
year, the government plans to ban conventional light bulbs, making only
low-energy, long-life fluorescent bulbs available.

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