By 'bagging it,' Ireland rids itself of a plastic nuisance
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Thursday, January 31, 2008
REPOSTED FROM THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
DUBLIN: 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 holding a cellphone to his ear. But there are no plastic bags, the ubiquitous symbol of urban life.
In a determined attempt to deal with litter, Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 - now 22 euro cents, about 33 U.S. cents - at the register if you want one with your purchases. There was an advertising awareness campaign. Then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.
Within weeks, there was a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use. Within a year, nearly everyone bought reusable cloth bags, which they now keep in the office and the back of their cars. Plastic bags became socially unacceptable - on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.
"When my roommate brings one in the flat, it annoys the hell out of me," said Edel Egan, a photographer carrying a load of groceries in a red backpack.
Countries from China to Australia, cities from New York to San Francisco, have promulgated laws and regulations to address the problem, with decidedly mixed success.
But in the parking lot of the Superquinn Market - Ireland's largest chain - it is clear that Ireland has solved the problem.
"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 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, who like everyone here has switched to cloth, said, "The tax is not so much, but it completely changed a very bad habit. Now you never see plastic."
As of last week, nearly 37 billion plastic bags had been used in the first weeks of 2008, according to reusablebags.com, a figure that rises by about a half million bags every minute. The vast majority are not used again, ending up as waste, landfill or litter. Because plastic bags are light and compressible, they constitute only 2 percent of landfill, but since most are not biodegradable they will be there for decades. Plastic bags were invented in the 1970s.
"In the last year, as people have become more conscious about the environment, this has become a lightning rod issue, because its something everyone can relate to," said Vincent Cobb, founder and president of reusablebags.com, an entrepreneur who founded the company four years ago to promote the issue. "In most of the world you buy anything and you get a plastic bag."
He added: "Plastic bags are a brilliant product but they are a victim of their own success. They've been perceived of as free when they have a real cost to the environment and to consumers."
Before the so called plas tax, Ireland was struggling with a plastic bag problem that is typical in much of the world. Frank Convery, a professor at University College Dublin and head of ENFO, Ireland's environmental information service, said: "You'd be driving in the Irish countryside and the sides of the roads were covered in plastic - when the foliage dropped off in the fall what was left on branches was a bunch of old plastic bags waving in the wind. That's gone and people love it."
In Ireland, all money from the plastic bag tax goes directly to the environment ministry for use in enforcement and clean-up projects. In a few countries, such as Germany, grocers have long charged a nominal fee for bags and cloth bags are common. But they are the exception.
Bangladesh and some African nations have sought to ban plastic bags because they clog fragile sewer systems, creating a health hazard. And they float in the ocean, endangering marine life.
In the past few months, a number of countries have announced new plans: China will prohibit sellers from handing out free plastic shopping bags this summer during the Olympics, but the charge is not specified and there is little capacity for enforcement. Australia has announced it wants to ban free plastic bags by the end of the year but has not decided how to do it.
"It is on the agenda on many places - people who looked before and gave up, are looking it again," said Simon McDonnell, a researcher at the University of Illinois, who has studied Ireland's legislation.
Attempts at taxing plastic bags have failed in many places because of opposition from manufacturers and merchants, who felt it would be bad for business. In Britain as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco, proposed taxes failed to gain political approval, although San Francisco passed a ban last year. 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 room: It is illegal for shopkeepers to pay for the bags on behalf of their customers.
More to the point, the environment minister told shopkeepers that if they merely changed from plastic to paper, he would tax those bags too.
While paper bags are in some ways better for the environment in terms of litter, studies suggest their manufacture causes more Co2 emissions than making plastic bags.
Today, Ireland's retailers are great plas tax boosters.
"I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister, I thought customers wouldn't accept it," said Feargal Quinn, a senator and founder of Ireland's largest chain of supermarkets. "But I have become a big, big enthusiast."
Quinn, nicknamed Ireland's "pope of customer service" for his meticulous attention to detail at his stores, added: "We were using millions of plastic bags a year and they were all being imported and only used once.
"Now we're saving the environment, we're reducing litter and since we're not paying for bags it ultimately save money for us and that reduces the price of food for our customers."
Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce, an industry group representing 6 million European shops. In that capacity, he has repeatedly encouraged the implementation of a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members aren't buying it. "They say, oh, no, no - it wouldn't work, it wouldn't be acceptable in our country."
As governments fail to take decisive action, some environmentally friendly chains have moved in with their own policies, Whole Foods Market announced this month that its stores would no longer offer plastic bags (they will use recycled paper or cloth). Many chains are starting to make customers pay for plastic bags.
"There's been a huge turnaround on this issue and I think with in the next 12 months, companies that want to be seen as leaders in the environment - like Wal-Mart and Home Depot - will be offering reusable options," Cobb said.
But such ad hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax.
Indeed, Quinn said that a decade ago his Superquinn stores tried unilaterally to charge for plastic bags, customers rebelled. He found himself standing at the cash register buying bags for customers with change from his pockets to prevent them from going elsewhere.
After 5 years of the plas tax, Ireland has effectively rebranded plastic and cloth bags, a feat Cobb hopes to achieve in the United States.
"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."
Last year, the bag tax was raised from 15 to 22 cents, after officials noted that consumption was rising slightly.
Some things worked to Ireland's advantage: Almost all markets are part of chains and highly computerized with cash registers that already collect government's value added tax, or VAT. That meant a minimum of re-programming to add the bag tax, and also little room for evasion - which would be much more of a problem in the small markets in the developing world.
Ireland has a young, flexible population that has proved a good testing ground for innovation: from cell phone services to non-smoking laws (it passed the first in Europe in 2004).
Ireland has proposed similar "polluter pays" taxes on ATM receipts and chewing gum. (The sidewalks of Dublin are dotted with old wads.) The latter has been avoided for the time being because chewing gum giant Wrigley's agreed to create a "clean up fund" as an alternative to a tax on its customers.
This year, the government plans to ban the sale of conventional light bulbs, making only low energy long life bulbs for sale.