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African nations banning plastic bags; could rest of world soon follow suit?

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

It's a common refrain heard in every supermarket: paper or plastic? In some African nations, that option is no longer valid. In such countries as Mali, Mauritania, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Kenya have banned plastic bags as they pose an environmental threat. Could the rest of the world be far behind?

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Plastic bag production became a criminal offence in both Mauritania and Mali on New Year's Eve. Rwanda and Somalia have also followed suit.

Mali's environment ministry described plastic bags as a "disastrous scourge" and "a menace to public health." Bangladesh was the first nation to outlaw polythene bags in 2002.

Among the many issues associated with plastic bag use, Malian authorities say the discarded bags block drainage systems. Plastic bags also pose a dangerous risk to animals such as sea turtles, which die after eating plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish.

The effect of plastic bags on ecology became highly apparent in the United Arab Emirates. The remains of a dead camel were found surrounding a giant ball of polythene, lying intact in what would have been the animal's stomach. Around half of the country's camels were dying from starvation caused by plastic consumption. Only oxo-biodegradable plastics, which decompose in air or water, are now allowed in that country.

Some cities in India, Pakistan, Mexico and the U.S. have also banned plastic bags in recent years. Italy became the first European country to do so in 2011. France plans to follow suit in 2014. Even China, which is often criticized as environmentally irresponsible, restricts the use of plastic bags.

"People think that once you get rid of plastic bags it's going to solve all our littering problems," Neil Verlander of Friends of the Earth told journalists. "But plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg. They make up a very small part of the huge amount of material we throw away."

A total plastic bag ban is highly improbable, a problem which Mauritanians discovered this year. Mamadou Fall, a hostel owner from the southern city of Rosso, says that locals were largely nonplussed by the initiative, which had "made no change" to the behavior of shoppers so far.

"We're not totally against this idea, but it can't work until the government offers us an alternative. How can we take home our sugar once we have weighed and bought it, if we don't have a plastic bag to put it in?"

While paper bags are biodegradable, they cost more in time, energy and natural resources than plastic bags do to produce.

The world's most efficient bag ban did not involve a "bag ban" at all, but instead, a "bag levy," Introduced in Ireland in 2002, the law initially saw customers charged 15 euro centimes per plastic bag. Within weeks, plastic bag use had fallen by 95 percent, and 90 percent of shoppers were using their own bags.

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