(Jan. 27, 2003) — Around the world, plastic bag makers are fighting for survival. Taiwan is the latest battleground.
Thousands of plastics industry workers marched in protest Dec. 27 and Jan. 19 in Taipei, according to local news reports. They're trying to reverse a law that took hold Jan. 1 restricting the use of plastic bags and disposable tableware.
Among other things, the law requires restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores to charge customers for plastic bags and disposable utensils.
Plastic industry workers say the law will cost the country thousands of jobs. They also argue that alternatives to plastic — paper bags, for example — environmentally are no better than plastics.
Despite the protests, Lung-Bin Hau, the head of Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration, said the restrictions will remain in place. Hau pointed to opinion polls that show the law has the support of more than 80 percent of the public.
As Plastics News has reported in recent months, the conflict in Taiwan is not an isolated incident. Governments around the world — Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Great Britain, Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere — either are implementing or considering restrictions, taxes or bans on certain kinds of plastic bags.
First, we must say that product bans are wrongheaded. If the aim is to reduce litter, there are better alternatives. The first step is to educate the public, and the second is to invest in modernizing the local waste disposal infrastructure. Reducing plastic waste is all about changing behavior, not banning plastics.
Second, we have to wonder how the perception of plastics in these countries has fallen to the point where the public doesn't care if the industry lives or dies. Plastics long has suffered from a negative perception, not just in Taiwan, but everywhere in the world.
In the United States, the American Plastics Council has invested millions of dollars in image-boosting ad campaigns to fight the negative stereotypes. Still, couldn't you imagine the U.S. industry being forced to fight a similar ban here?
Taiwan's plastics industry seems to be doing everything right. Organizers turned out 10,000 people for the first demonstration against the ban, and an estimated 20,000 for the second protest. They've also attracted some key legislative leaders to their cause.
But even with the strong grass-roots support and political firepower, Taiwan's plastics industry is losing the war. The government is set on sharply cutting plastic bag output, and the local EPA says it has prepared 8,400 jobs for people who may become unemployed as a result of the ban.
What will be the result of all this? You can be sure that the bag-ban movement will continue to spread, especially if supporters can point to “positive” results. In Ireland, for example, a bag tax has resulted in a 90 percent drop in use of plastic bags, plus $3.45 million in taxes in just three months. Those kinds of results will attract attention.
If that trend comes to North America, are processors here prepared? Right now, with the economy in a slump, the argument that a ban would cost jobs is pretty powerful. But what about next year?