Government pressure on the use and disposal of retail plastic bags is mounting around the world.
Some countries recently have imposed taxes on freely distributed supermarket bags, while others either have introduced or plan regulations limiting the use of lightweight polyethylene shopping bags. The measures are aimed at reducing pollution and encouraging recycling.
Ireland introduced in March a 0.15 euro (about 15 cents) tax on each free plastic bag supplied by supermarkets and stores. The move has reduced bag consumption 95 percent, or more than 1 billion bags, the government announced last month.
The levy is Ireland's answer to wind-blown plastic litter. The government said the tax has generated revenue of more than 3.5 million euros ($3.4 million), which has been earmarked for environmental projects.
Shoppers have been encouraged to purchase tougher, reusable bags sold by major supermarkets for around 1 euro (97 cents) each.
While the tax initially was criticized by shoppers and storekeepers, the measure has proved surprisingly popular. However, the levy has taken its toll on Ireland's film and bag converting sector, and importers and distributors also have been hit by the cutback in consumption.
Local bag-making firms have been dwindling for some years, but the Dublin, Ireland-based Plastics Industries Association blames the tax for 250 lost jobs. The trade group estimates a similar number of jobs have been lost by distributors and importers.
Even so, one leading Irish bag maker, Shabra Plastics and Packaging Ltd. of Carrickmacross, saw the bag tax coming and has adapted and diversified, even benefiting from the levy, according to Managing Director Oliver Brady.
The company is taking advantage of new demand for thicker, reusable PE and polypropylene bags, Brady said.
Shabra, which operates nine film extruders and has seven bag lines, has added 55 employees since March and has moved into production of paper bags. Shabra also is growing as a plastics recycler, and today handles more post-consumer waste. It recycles about 20 million pounds of plastic per year, he said.
The Irish environmental experiment is attracting the attention of other governments, in particular that of the neighboring United Kingdom. The program has won praise from Environment Minister Michael Meacher, who commissioned a study into the issue. The study is complete and is awaiting Meacher's review.
The completed study, offering various options to tackle the waste bag problem, including a similar bag tax for Britain, awaits Meacher's return to his Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development being held in South Africa.
But any British proposal for a bag tax could be overtaken by a major report on broader waste management in the country, taking into account new European directives on packaging, electrical and electronic goods and automotive waste. The report is to be presented in October or November.
British consumers use about 8 million retail bags per year.
South Africa also is wrestling with bag litter issues. A government proposal to eliminate shopping bags of film thinner than 30 microns has run into fierce opposition from powerful bag producers and the trades unions.
Environment Minister Valli Moosa plans to introduce regulations that will allow only unprinted bags of film as thin as 30 microns, with printed retail bags no thinner than 80 microns
The industry fears the high cost of re-equipping its plants to produce thicker bags. Unions claim the proposal could cost 3,000 local jobs, since retailers would be forced to import thicker bags.
Opponents of the regulations, which are due to be enforced beginning in May, were trying to set up an emergency meeting with Moosa.