02 Jun 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

Latin America and the Caribbean bids good-bye to plastic bags

On 30 May, Chile became the first South American country to approve a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, garnering congratulations from around the world for its efforts to beat plastic pollution ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June.

In 2017, under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, the country banned the use of plastic bags in 100 coastal communities. But the government of current President Sebastián Piñera decided to take things one step further, proposing to the Congress to extend the measure nationwide.

The ban will come into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses. 

“Today we are more prepared to leave a better planet to our children, grandchildren and the generations to come,” said Piñera.

Several other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are using taxes, bans, and technological innovation to restrict the production and consumption of plastic bags and reduce their harmful impact on oceans and marine species.

It is estimated that the world consumes each year up to 5 trillion plastic bags, mostly made of polyethylene, a low-cost polymer derived from petroleum, which takes at least 500 years to degrade. Only 9 per cent of all plastic waste is recycled.

Plastic bag and bird
Plastic pollution is harmful to birds and other wildlife. (Shutterstock)

Latin America and the Caribbean – home to the Amazon Basin, the Patagonian highlands, and a dense concentration of coral reefs – is incredibly rich in biodiversity.  

Governments around the region have been delivering bold pollution-beating policies. Antigua and Barbuda was the first country in the region to ban plastic bags in 2016. Soon after, Colombia passed a similar ban, and in 2017 applied a tax to large plastic bags, while ordering changes to their design with the aim of achieving greater resistance and reusability.

The measure has helped reduce plastic bag consumption by 35 per cent and raise a total of 10,460 million Colombian pesos (about $3.6 million), says Andrés Velasco, vice minister of Finance and Public Credit of Colombia.

The tax began at 20 Colombian pesos for each plastic bag in 2017, and will increase 10 pesos each year until reaching 50 pesos in 2020 – equivalent to approximately $0.02.

Colombia’s neighbor, Panama, became at the beginning of 2018 the first country in Central America to ban polyethylene bags. The country is also drawing up a national plan to combat marine litter.

The Panamanian legislator Samir Gozaine, one of the supporters of the law, says that the mentality of the population is changing and more and more people are choosing reusable or biodegradable bags, such as cardboard or thread bags.

"Similar legislation has been passed by a growing number of countries in the world, so yes, we can say that we are moving forward in the battle against plastic bags," says Gozaine.

Costa Rica adopted a national strategy to drastically reduce the use of disposable plastics by 2021, while in the Caribbean, Belize, Bahamas and Bermuda have passed or are drafting laws to eradicate single-use plastics.

Ecuador aims to transform the remote Galápagos Islands into a plastics-free archipelago: no more plastic straws, bags or bottles will be sold or used after 21 August of this year.

In Peru, several bills on the issue of plastic bags are debated in Congress. The most recent, prepared by the Government, seeks to reduce the consumption of this product by 35 per cent during the first year of implementation.

In the cities

The region’s three biggest cities – Mexico City, São Paulo and Buenos Aires – have also joined the fight against plastic bags. The Mexican capital was one of the first to do so. In August 2009, the capital city government reformed the Solid Waste Law and prohibited stores from dispensing bags free of charge.

Buenos Aires went a step further: starting from 1 January 2017, all of the city’s supermarkets were prohibited from using or selling disposable plastic shopping bags.

Buenos Aires
Supermarkets in Buenos Aires are banned from distributing disposable shopping bags. (Pixabay)

Before the law, 500 million plastic bags per year were used in the city, according to Eduardo Macchiavelli, the Minister of Environment and Public Space in the Argentine capital.

A lot of these bags would end up in the city’s waterways, triggering floods, a situation that changed "notoriously" after the implementation of the law, Macchiavelli said. A similar ban is also in force in other Argentine cities including Rosario, Pinamar and Bariloche.

“It is necessary for large cities to take an active role, since being the most densely populated, they generate a greater impact on the environment,” says Macchiavelli.

In São Paulo, the government approved a law prohibiting the free distribution of plastic bags in shops in 2011. However, the measure was suspended for several years due to legal claims, until its implementation was finally endorsed by the Brazilian justice system in 2015. 

According to data from the City Council of São Paulo, the consumption of disposable bags was reduced by up to 70 per cent during the first year of the implementation of the law.

UN Environment's Clean Seas campaign aims to drastically reduce the consumption of disposable plastics and eradicate the use of microplastics that pollute the world's oceans. Twelve countries in the region are part of the campaign:  Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Grenada, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic, Saint Lucia and Uruguay.

#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day on 5 June.