State of the Planet

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You Asked: Do Plastic Bag Bans Work in Developing Nations?

Got a burning question about climate change? “You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. To submit a question, drop a comment below, message us on Instagram, or email us here.

Today’s question comes from our Earth Month Q&A on Instagram.

Would anti-plastic bag legislation, as proposed in NY, work in areas of the world that aren’t as developed?

Michael Burger of the Sabin Center for Climate Change law. Photo courtesy of the Sabin Center.

Answer by Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, and Malia Libby, Sabin Center intern (CC ’20).

On Earth Day, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law outlawing many types of single-use plastic bags in New York State. The ban goes into effect on March 1, 2020. The law is a major development in the global battle against plastic pollution, but it is far from the first of its kind. Notably, a number of countries in less developed areas of the world have had anti-plastic bag legislation on the books for years. Bangladesh has a law dating back to 2002.

While these plastic bag bans and levies have achieved varying degrees of success, removing excess plastic from the environment has the potential to greatly impact public health and infrastructure in developing countries. The lasting effects of any such legislation ultimately depend on enforcement, access to affordable substitutes, and public awareness and buy-in.

Problems arising from mismanaged plastic items are well documented, driving the need for legislative solutions. Animal deaths from plastic bag ingestion and flooding due to plastic bag-caused waterway blockages have been cited as reasons for bans and levies in both New York and abroad. In Mauritania, a national plastic bag ban was put in place in 2013, after it was estimated that 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths could be attributed to plastic bag ingestion. And after a national ban on plastic bags in Eritrea was adopted in 2005, problems related to drain and water pipe blockages decreased dramatically.

Lack of enforcement and cost-effective alternatives have been cited as the most significant limiting factors in the success of plastic bag legislation. The lack of cost-effective alternatives poses a particular set of problems for countries that rely on plastic bags to maintain food hygiene. In the absence of available alternatives, retailers and consumers may turn to black markets for plastic bags. This, in turn, increases the need for enforcement. But enforcement can work.

The Rwandan government, for example, was able to curb black markets through stricter enforcement of the law over time, with some offenders facing high fines, and even jail. Ensuring availability of affordable alternatives and providing adequate oversight can prevent both the presence of such black markets and the resurgence of plastic bag use years after bans have been implemented.

Whether in New York State or in a developing nation context, anti-plastic bag legislation can effectively address plastic pollution through proper planning and enforcement measures. Public education and increasing awareness of the risks and harms of plastics consumption is also a key component of ensuring programmatic success. Finally, monitoring progress and adjusting current measures will be necessary for safeguarding human and environmental health from the scourge of plastic pollution.


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