Dealing with our environmental and global warming challenges is not susceptible to a single, simple, silver bullet answer. There are technological, resource, political, fiscal, and social challenges. At times, multiple domains can coalesce to help drive change.
In 2002, Ireland instituted a fee on plastic bags. There was an awareness campaign and a fee of 33 cents. The result?
Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.
That’s right, the Irish take their canvas bags to the supermarket.
As the New York Times notes, Ireland is well into “the post-plastic bag era.” Globally, in January 2008, along, some 42 billion plastic bags were made, used (sort of) and disposed (sort of) with significant impacts in terms of energy usage and impact on the environment. And, the number mounts with every passing day. Thus, the question and challenge before us is quite directly how to spread “the post-plastic-bag era” from Ireland to the rest of the globe.
When it comes to the European Union, there is a sign of hope.
Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of the Superquinn chain. “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”
Mr. Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce, a group representing six million European retailers. In that capacity, he has encouraged a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members are not buying it. “They say: ‘Oh, no, no. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be acceptable in our country,’ ” Mr. Quinn said.
In the US, Whole Foods is ending the use of plastic bags. A number of countries have announced plans to eliminate plastic bags. San Francisco passed a ban. Bangladesh and other countries are moving toward bans. But, the Irish combination of (serious) fee and educational campaign seems to have hit the mark. Is it the Luck of the Irish or is there a lesson there for all of us?