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Irish take lead with plastic bag levy

A government-imposed tax on plastic shopping bags has spurred a sea-change in consumer habits in Ireland while improving the environment.
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The shopping experience in this picturesque Irish town is not dissimilar to buying groceries in New Jersey or Texas — except at the checkout. Garvey’s Supervalu will happily take your euros or your credit card, but the staff won’t offer any shopping bags unless you are willing to pay for them.

The practice, replicated in villages, towns and cities throughout Ireland for 17 months, has contributed to a stunning drop in the use of plastic bags, once a ubiquitous scourge along the nation’s bucolic lanes, quiet rivers and twisty highways.

It’s a plan that environmental groups think is worth serious consideration in other countries.

According to the Irish Department of the Environment, shoppers used around 1.2 billion plastic bags per year before the tax was imposed in March 2002. Since then, the use has dropped by around 95 percent.

And in return, the department has received an influx of cash to fund recycling programs from the 15 euro cents (about 17 U.S. cents) charged for every shopping bag purchased.

As of July 28, the levy had raised 13.5 million euros ($15.15 million), that the department has plowed into recycling facilities around the country.

Pollution problem
In a recent statement, Minister of State Pat “The Cope” Gallagher noted data showing that plastic bags now comprise about 0.3 percent of the nation’s litter, compared with 5 percent before the levy.

But, as many travelers will note with dismay, pollution remains a nasty problem in Ireland, where explosive economic growth over the past decade has been accompanied by surge in consumption, construction and illegal landfills.

The record is reflected in its low standing within the European Union’s rankings for waste recyclers.

“The national monitoring system results clearly show that the incidence of littering is still very high in Ireland,” Minister Gallagher bemoaned, “despite the increased levels of anti-litter action at national level and by local authorities in recent years.”

An example for others
Still, the government-imposed shopping bag levy has caught the eye of environmental groups around the world. In Australia, the government is investigating the Irish system as part of its pledge to reduce plastic bag litter by 75 percent, and the British government has also vowed to give it consideration.

Separately, Bangladesh has sought to ban plastic bags from the capital city of Dhaka after they were blamed for two devastating floods because they blocked draining and sewage lines.

And in May, South Africa made it illegal for shops to offer flimsy plastic shopping bags, which had been disparagingly called the nation’s national flower because of the large numbers that were dumped around the country.

Instead, retailers are offering, at a price, more ecologically friendly polypropylene bags or thicker plastic bags that are more economical to recycle. And many South African customers are bringing their own containers.

Meantime, supermarket chains in several countries, including Germany and Canada, have taken their own initiative by asking shoppers to pay for shopping bags. In addition, the German-headquartered Aldi chain — which boasts stores across the United States — asks customers to pay for their bags.

What about the U.S.?
However, U.S. environmentalists are skeptical the Irish system can be imposed in the United States, the wealthiest consumer society in the world.

Dr. Richard Dennison of the Environmental Defense Fund said he would love such a program, but said that most supermarket chains would be reluctant to impose it on their own, fearing they would put them at a competitive disadvantage

“It would be a way through a market mechanism to both reduce use and drive home to people the external cost of using [plastic bags],” he said.

Joe Glynn, a researcher with Friends of the Earth in Ireland, explained that it took 12 years of campaigning to persuade the government to impose the levy. “It’s been a huge success because people didn’t need to take all these bags,” he said.

In Dingle’s largest supermarket, the plastic bag levy has worked smoothly except for tourists who are sometimes upset at having to pay or find some other method to carry groceries, SuperValu store administrator Chris Norveil said.

“Local people bring their own bags now; they use boxes, or they carry their shopping out to their cars,” she said.

“There wasn’t very much fuss after it was presented by the government as a way of saving the environment.”