St. Patrick’s Day—the day dedicated to all things Irish—arrives on March 17. If you’re planning on heading over to your local supermarket to stock up on shamrock decorations and Guinness, it’s only fitting that you carry them the Irish way—in a reusable bag. You won’t find many paper or plastic bags being carried around the streets of Dublin. In 2002, Ireland became the first nation to place a tax on plastic bag use, with a fee of $.33 for every plastic bag needed at check out. Ireland’s Environment Ministry estimated that about 1.2 billion free plastic bags were being handed out every year, about 330 per person, leaving windblown bags littering Irish streets and otherwise bucolic countryside.
The tax was a wild success. Within three months of its introduction, shops were handing out 277 million fewer plastic bags than normal (about 94% less). Irish retailers were no longer spending $50 million a year on single-use plastic bags, and approximately $9.6 million was raised from the tax in its first year, much of it directed toward a fund to benefit the environment. “Over one billion plastic bags will be removed from circulation while raising funding for future environmentally friendly initiatives,” said Ireland’s Environment Minister, Martin Cullen. He added: “It is clear that the levy has not only changed consumer behavior in relation to disposable plastic bags, it has also raised national consciousness about the role each one of us can, and must, play if we are to tackle collectively the problems of litter and waste management.”
Rather than impose a tax on plastic bags, we have recycling bins stationed in U.S. grocery stores of the Whole Foods variety that aim to collect them. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 9% of plastic bags were recycled in 2009, making those recycling bins a sad environmental effort in comparison to the Irish’s 94% drop in plastic bag use completely, especially considering the use of plastic bags in the U.S. greatly outweighs that of Ireland.
Plastic bag makers claim that the amount of litter and environmental damage from plastic bags is exaggerated, but when it comes down to it, it takes millions of barrels of oil each year to make plastic bags, and they create unsightly litter wherever they drift and clog sewer systems. There’s no argument that sea turtles, whales, dolphins and birds die each year by swallowing them.
Paper bags and biodegradable plastic bags are not a viable solution, either. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper bag production creates more air and water pollution to produce than plastic bags, not to mention causes deforestation. Biodegradable plastic bags need warmth and sunlight to decompose quickly, so if they’re exposed to cold or wet conditions, or just thrown out, they become long-term trash in a landfill just like a regular plastic bag.
So that durable, washable, cloth bag you’ve been meaning to buy for your shopping? Get it in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit and consider it an Irish blessing.