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Ban or tax for plastic bags?

Last year, the European Commission’s public consultation on plastic bag use gathered over 15,500 responses. The results showed that over 70% of respondents were in favour of a ban on the distribution of plastic bags and the Commission is now considering its response.

Debates and votes on plastic bag use are increasingly common around the world. Countries, including China and Ireland, and cities, including San Francisco and Mexico City, have adopted bans or taxes in some form to curb the use of plastic bags. The issue is hotly contested in the US currently where, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year – most of which end up in landfill sites.

Although reducing litter and minimising environmental impact is something every community should strive for, both plastic bag bans and taxes bring their own problems. Although bans and taxes lead to a reduction in the use of disposable plastic bags, the amount of pollution overall is typically unaffected.

When plastic bags are taxed or banned, many grocery shoppers turn instead to paper bags. While paper bags are green in the sense that they can be recycled, getting them to the store results in a higher carbon footprint. Being considerably bulkier and heavier, it typically takes almost seven lorries to deliver the number of paper bags that would fit in one lorry of plastic bags. This means that more fuel is required, resulting in more air pollution. Plastic bags can be recycled into oil, which can then be used for fuel, helping to mitigate the carbon footprint of delivering them to stores.

There is also the argument of convenience. Plastic bags quite simply have much higher functionality due to their low weight, compactness and relative strength. Ultimately plastic bags also take up much less space in landfills than bags made of alternative materials. For all these reasons, many people argue that a much better solution than a ban or a tax is to educate the public and encourage people to recycle more.

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