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Plastic bag debate

Daniela Späth / jlwNovember 20, 2013

An EU citizen uses around 200 plastic bags per year. That's too much, says the EU. But, wasting plastic bags is not just a European problem. Countries around the world are struggling with the issue, say experts.

LONDON - FEBRUARY 29: Shoppers leave a Sainsbury's store with their purchases in plastic bags on February 29, 2008 in London, England. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated that he will force retailers to help reduce the use of plastic bags if they do not do so voluntarily. (Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

On average they are used for about 25 minutes, then they end up in the rubbish dump. It's fair to say that plastic bags don't have a particularly fulfilling life.

The German environmental organization, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, estimates that more than a billion bags are used every year globally. Only about 10 percent of those are recycled.

The problems for the environment are many. Plastic bags usually take several hundred years until they decay thereby filling landfills, while animals often mistake the plastic for food and choke to death.

A global problem

Europe is a major offender, producing nearly a million tons of plastic bags each year. But the problem is a global one, and especially in growing economies in Asia. Countries like Indonesia or the Philippines produce a lot of plastic bags, but they don't have structures in place to dispose of them properly. Energy production from plastic rubbish, such as incineration, is too expensive for many countries, says Ellen Gunsilius from the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).

The problem is particularly acute in cities. According to recent findings published in the journal 'Nature', city dwellers produce twice as much rubbish as people living in the country.

Brazilian dump
Around 10,000 tonnes of rubbish is added to landfill sites across Mexico City on a daily basisImage: picture-alliance/landov

Landfill sites in Laogang in Shanghai and Bordo Poniente in Mexico City compete for the title of world's largest rubbish dump. It is estimated 10,000 tonnes of rubbish is dumped on each of them per day.

Even Rwanda's capital, Kigali, struggled for years with plastic waste. Plastic bags were everywhere, littering the streets and clogging drains. Today, Kigali is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. The United Nations awarded them the "Habitat Scroll of Honor" award two years ago for their no-plastic policy.

Anyone travelling to Rwanda today is subjected to ruthless baggage checks. All plastic bags are confiscated and disposed of immediately. "In Rwanda, this tactic seems to work, but only because it is coupled with a large effort to control the problem. Taxing bags, like in Denmark and Finland still seems to be more effective," says Gunsilius.

Ireland's solution

In Ireland the government has already imposed a tax of 22 euro cents ($0.29) per plastic bag. "The taxes were not imposed to generate more tax revenue, but to change people's behaviour," says Benjamin Bongardt, policy head at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union Germany. "Since the introduction of the bag-tax, less plastic bags have been produced."

Plastic bag consumption per capita in Ireland has fallen from 328 bags a year, to just 20. In comparison, the EU average, according to a study by the European Commission, is approximately 198 bags.

a red plastic bag
The EU is looking at banning plastic bags in the futureImage: Fotolia/rdnzl

Early in November, the European Commission made it clear that it wanted to curb plastic bag waste in the future. Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik says EU states may completely ban plastic bags in future. "Plastic bags are a symbol of our throw-away society," Potocnik said.

Bans alone however are not sufficient says Ellen Gunsilius from GIZ. "In many countries, awareness of the damage a plastic bag can cause is often lacking," she told DW. "Bans or taxes are more effective if people and business actually understand and accept them."