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Words Alia Fawaz

Single-use plastic bags are freely given out at supermarkets around the country.  If you are a regular grocery shopper, you amass a huge batch of plastic bags at home, which either get thrown out later or may get re-used as handy liners for small waste bins around the house.  Rarely do we see shoppers take these bags to the supermarkets to be used again at the till. So, if we are wasting too much of these plastic bags, who is to blame? And should we just turn a blind eye, especially in a country that is already struggling to cope with its trash?

Efforts in Europe and elsewhere

The culture of re-using grocery bags has not really caught on in Lebanon, whether we are talking about the single-use or the eco-friendly ones (large supermarket chains sell their own branded reusable and sustainable shopping bags).  Perhaps, as in the United Kingdom, a fee needs to be charged for each single-use plastic bag that is given out.  In October 2015, the UK government issued a five-pence fee for each plastic bag that is given out, in an attempt to reduce litter and protect wildlife. The charge was introduced to try to influence consumer behavior, and clearly it is working in the UK. Before the charge was introduced, more than seven billion bags were handed out by seven main supermarket chains, and in just six months the figure decreased to nearly 500 million. 

In fact, other European countries began this practice much earlier.  In 1993, Denmark introduced a plastic levy, which brought about an immediate decline in plastic bag usage of 60 percent. Ireland followed suit with a successful “bag tax” in 2002, resulting in a 90 percent decrease in bag usage and a substantial reduction in litter. In 2011, Italy completely banned the distribution of lightweight plastic bags that were not derived from biodegradable sources. In fact, the European Union calls for an 80 percent reduction in plastic bags by 2019. This means that virtually every European country is now putting practices into place to meet this goal.

In the United States, there is no official national plastic bag fee or ban. However, over 100 counties and municipalities have introduced their own regulations: either a 100 percent ban (such as in the state of Hawaii) or a fee for paper or plastic bags ranging anywhere from five cents to 20 cents.  In Morocco, a national law officially came into effect on July 1, 2016 to completely ban plastic bags, while in Mauritania the manufacture and importation of plastic bags is also banned to protect the environment, livestock, and marine species.

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In August 2016, Montreal, Canada passed a bylaw (in full effect starting January 2018) preventing stores from selling single-use plastic bags. This applies to all kinds of plastic bags, with the exception of small ones that are used for vegetables or medication for hygiene purposes. Individuals failing to adhere to this rule will face fines of $200 to $1,000 for the first violation, and $300 to $2,000 for any subsequent ones. Companies, on the other hand, face fines ranging between $400 and $4,000.

While the main reason for the bans is to decrease the amount of plastic that finds its way into the ocean, there are actually other reasons in some countries.  In Kenya, for example it is done to stop the spread of malaria (the bags clog the sewers and drain systems, which causes malaria because of the increased population of mosquitoes living on the flooded sewers). In Bangladesh and the Philippines, the ban also helps to protect the sewage system and decrease flooding.  In India, an estimated number of 20 cows die per day as a result of ingesting plastic bags, which they regard as food. A new rule has now been implemented in India banning the manufacturing of plastic bags of below 50 microns (as thinner bags currently pose a major environmental threat because of their non-disposability).

There is no such thing as ‘away’.

When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”

Annie Leonard

Plastic bags harm the environment

The sad truth is that around eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year, and they take hundreds of years to break down. Experts estimate that plastic is now eaten by 31 species of marine mammals and more than 100 specials of sea birds. Plastic is not biodegradable.

The production of plastic uses up petroleum, as plastic is made from chemicals refined from crude oil. In the United States, for example, plastic manufacturing alone consumes 331 billion barrels of petroleum, equal to five percent of the national consumption of petroleum. Petroleum production and its use play a harmful role in polluting the environment, as its use contaminates the water and air.

Clearly there are plenty of problems associated with plastic bags.  Perhaps next time we go food shopping we can plan ahead. If you can’t get hold of sustainable reusable bags, try using an old vinyl beach bag. Be creative! Otherwise, save these single-use plastic bags from your last shopping trip and use them over and over again. You’ll be making a difference. We can still do our share – however small – even if there is no law in Lebanon that calls for the eradication of plastic bags.