Plastic bags: To pay or not to pay, Singapore can follow the example of these countries

Plastic bags: To pay or not to pay, Singapore can follow the example of these countries
PHOTO: Reuters
W.T.M. Why This Matters
Plastics are now one of the most common and persistent pollutants in our oceans today. From plastic bags to micro plastics, plastic pollution in our oceans continues to worsen each year. Although the plastics industry seeks to minimise the dangers of these pollutants, studies show that they are a major cause of harm to marine animals and sea birds.

Plastic bags have been a bane for many an environmentalist, and there's no denying the issues we face with them floating around. But there's also no denying their usefulness in many industries.

Over the years, many countries have been trying to reduce the need for plastics especially in supermarket usage, and Singapore is no exception.

Just this weekend, it was reported that four main supermarket chains - FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group (whose supermarkets include Cold Storage and Giant), Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong - are in talks to roll out an industry-wide surcharge on plastic bags.

In June last year, environmental group Zero Waste Singapore proposed that the Government and local businesses introduce a levy as a disincentive to shoppers to use them.

Singapore reportedly used 2.5 billion bags each year, which generated 824,600 tonnes of plastic waste in 2015. But only 7 per cent of it was recycled.

If a possible charge of 10 or 20 cents for a plastic bag sits uncomfortable with some of us, perhaps we should look at what other countries have done to phase plastic bags out or reduce its usage dramatically.

Photo: The Straits Times

1. BANGLADESH

It became the first country in the world to ban the thinner plastic bag in 2002.

Severe flooding from 1988 to 1998 that submerged two-thirds of the country was traced to littered plastic bags clogging drains.

2. INDIA

The country banned the production of the thin plastic bags in 2002 to prevent plastic bags from clogging drainage systems and prevent cows from ingesting the bags, confusing it for food. However, enforcement remains an issue.

The government banned all polythene bags of less than 50 microns in March 2016. But poor implementation has pushed the buck to regional authorities to enforce the ban.

Photo: China Daily

2. CHINA

The country imposed a total ban in June 2008, prohibiting shops, supermarkets, and other sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick.

The authorities have had enough of rampant littering of plastic bags which were also commonly found in waterways and on beaches, and dumped illegally all over China.

Consumers, especially those in cities, are now used to bringing along their own shopping bags and reusing plastic bags. And there has been no negative impact on the sales at supermarkets.

3. HONG KONG

The Special Administrative Region of China forbids retailers from giving plastic bags under a certain thickness and for free.

After a HK50 cents (S$0.10) plastic bag levy was implemented in April 2015, its use reportedly plunged 90 per cent. There are signs showing Hong Kong is phasing out the use of plastic bags at a dramatic rate.

Photo: The Straits Times

4. TAIWAN

In 2002, Taiwan (above) started restricting their distribution in private schools, government organisations, department stores, retail stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, and fastfood restaurants. This helped them cut back on 20 million bags each year.

And from Jan 1, 2018, beverage shops, bookstores, pharmacies, and other types of business will no longer hand out plastic bags with every purchase. Yes, no more plastic bag for your cup of bubble tea when in Taiwan.

5. IRELAND

Ireland introduced a €0.15 (S$0.25) tax in 2002. Levied on consumers at the point of sale, this led to 90 per cent of consumers using long-life bags within a year. The tax was increased to €0.22 in 2007.

The revenue goes to a government-managed environment fund.

Photo: Reuters

6. ENGLAND

England was the last region in the United Kingdom to start charging 5 pence (S$0.10) for every plastic bag given out at supermarkets and large stores from October 2015. 

The move is expected to save 7.6 billion bags given to shoppers at major supermarkets every year. Retailers are expected to use the money raised from the charge on meaningful causes. Activists have called for the law to include all retailers and all types of bags.

7. AFRICA

This might come as a surprise to many. Widespread bans and plastic bag charges are imposed across Africa, where many of the countries are much poorer than Western and Asian countries.

South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda Botswana, Kenya and Ethiopia all have total bans in place.

Photo: Reuters

8. UNITED STATES

As of July 2014, 20 states and 132 cities had either bans in place or pending. Which means some 20 million US citizens are now living in an area where plastic bags are banned.

The country alone uses 12 million barrels of oil every year to meet plastic bag demand. Every year, one hundred billion plastic bags are discarded in America.

Retired scientist Glory Jasper is glad that recycling seems to be an in-thing especially with the young in America even though supermarkets in New York and New Jersey are still giving out free plastic bags.

Recalling an embarrassing incident: "Many people brought their own bags with them. But one day, I forgot to bring my cloth bags when I went to shop at Adam Farms in Kingston, New York. So I said "plastic". The cashier who was a young man put all of my stuff into one bag and he was glaring at me all the time. So I think there's pressure from the younger set to conserve on plastic."

chenj@sph.com.sg

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