Right now you would not notice if you walked through an open market or into a grocery store, but Mexico City has passed a law that bans stores from giving customers free plastic bags. The law will not be enforced for another year to buy stores time to find biodegradable options, but all businesses from bakeries to clothing stores will face potentially harsh penalties if they do not comply.
The city’s 9 million residents plow through about 20 million bags each day. Although the local plastic trade association stridently opposed the ban, the local legislative assembly passed the law earlier this month.
The plastic bag ban is part of Mexico City’s Plan Verde, which is tackling issues from air pollution to the increase of organic food in the city’s markets. Frustrated with what they insist are the health and environmental problems that result from plastic bags, city leaders figure the ban is just one approach to educate residents about the environment.
Retail chains in Mexico have already committed to a reduction in plastic bags given to consumers. Wal-Mart, for example, will cut the number of plastic bags handed out to its customers by 50% in 2013. To that end, Wal-Mart, the largest warehouse chain in Mexico, has sold about 1.6 million reusable shopping bags throughout the country.
Many questions remain to be sorted out. Enforcement is one. For example, will the city really dish out a $90,000 fine and a 36-hour jail sentence to street vendors who are trying to eke out a living? Furthermore, what about those plastic bags used to bundle fruits or vegetables? And what if small shops cannot find a suitable alternative within the year? The delay in enforcement is also to give plastic bag factories time to convert their equipment—a deadline that may not be realistic.
The trend to discourage the use of plastic bags will continue. Countries including South Africa, Belgium, and parts of China have enacted partial bans of plastic bags. Cities like San Francisco, Washington, DC, and New Delhi have joined the bandwagon as well.
Fairness, however, is an issue. To target large chains that hand out plastic bags like candy is easy. But for the street vendor who can barely make ends meet, there should be a viable cost-effective alternative to that polyethylene bag. But instead of threatening merchants with dranconian penalties, a system that requires stores to charge for the bags could be more effective. Countries all over the world pass laws that remain on the books without any follow-through. Mexico City’s plastic bag ban could be one of them.
Then again, if the goal is to raise consumer awareness while reducing waste, Mexico City’s is a solid first step. Who’s next?