Published on: February 4, 2008The New York Times reports that a remarkable thing has happened in Ireland, where in 2002 the government imposed a 33 cent tax on each plastic bag given out in the checkout lines of that nation’s stores. The tax wasn't created in a vacuum; the Times notes that the government also did a public service campaign to explain to the citizenry what had been done, and why.
“And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts,” the Times writes. “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.”
Something else has changed, too. Ireland’s retailers have not only accepted the change, but are enthusiastic about it.
“I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” Feargal Quinn, founder of Superquinn and a member of the Irish Senate, tells the Times “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”
The Times also notes that in his role as president of EuroCommerce, a trade group representing six million EU retailers, Quinn has encouraged – largely unsuccessfully - a similar tax in other countries, believing that it could have much the same impact as in Ireland.
“They say: ‘Oh, no, no. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be acceptable in our country,’” Quinn tells the Times.
And Quinn notes that the acceptance of the bag tax marks a real sea change in terms of public attitudes. He tells the Times “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.”
The paper also reports on the larger problem: “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.”
And, of course, Whole Foods has announced that it will no longer hand out plastic bags as of Earth Day, April 22, 2008.
- KC's View:
- It was interesting that over the weekend, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a letter from a reader who objected to a quote in the paper from a Publix spokesperson saying that the company has “no plans” to ban plastic bags in the same way that Whole Foods has. The letter essentially accuses Publix of hypocrisy, saying that “if Publix is going to sell Publix GreenWise products and open Publix GreenWise markets, they should step up to the plate like the Whole Foods grocers” and ban plastic bags.
I think that hypocrisy is a little strong, but I also think that this letter probably reflects a feeling by an expanding number of consumers – that if stores are going to sell natural and organic foods and take an approach to the marketplaces that stresses the “green,” then they have to be consistent. And this means that at some point, taxing and/or banning plastic bags probably is going to happen.
Companies need to be preparing sooner – rather than later – for that eventuality.