Chile’s plastic bag ban opens possibilities for the future

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By Zoe Baillargeon
 
Among the many problems facing the health of planet Earth, the issue of plastics pollution is one of the most pressing. And the ubiquity of plastic bags is a particular scourge for our environment.
 
Plastic bags have a way of getting around. Blown by the wind, washed away in water, tossed on the ground by a person, they travel, meander, drift, and end up where they shouldn’t: a faraway field, the branch of a tree, or, in the ocean where it becomes some poor creature’s last supper.
 
Used for a minute, that bag will take 500 years to decompose, or choke a sea turtle.
 
Many countries and cities have already taken steps to eliminate plastic bag usage by banning them, and recently Chile joined them by becoming the first South American country to ban single-use plastic bags.
 
The effort in Chile began back in October 2017 when then-president Michelle Bachelet proposed and eventually signed legislation prohibiting the sale of single-use plastic bags in 102 coastal communities, hoping that that would cut down on the 8 million tons of plastic waste that enters Chilean seas each year along its 4,300-kilometer (2,671 miles) long coastline. Government statistics show that the country currently goes through about 3.4 million plastic bags a year.
 
Recently, the current Sebastian Piñera government amended the Bachelet law to include the entire country of Chile. Owners of large-scale retail operations have six months to comply, but smaller businesses, like family-owned mercados, have two years to make the switch.
 
 
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announcing the country's enlargement of the plastic ban. Photo: Gobierno de Chile Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announcing the country's enlargement of the plastic ban. Photo: Gobierno de Chile


 

The new law prohibiting plastic bags has given rise to new hope for activists and experts seeking to ban other kinds of plastics, or expand and improve recycling programs, which has proved to be huge problem for Chile. In 2016, a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that only 4% of waste in Chile was recycled, which Chile’s congress sought to remedy with a law in 2017 that seeks to raise the number to 30%.
 
“It is a positive step,” said Flavia Liberona, executive director of the Santiago-based Terram Foundation, about the new plastic bags ban to The New York Times. “It opens the door to move forward and discuss other related problems, like the use of plastic food packaging and recycling.”
 
Chile has an especially vested interest in banning multiple forms of plastic along its lengthy coastline, because as it is heavily reliant on the ocean for fishing, keeping plastic out of the sea is imperative. Even when plastic breaks down, it never fully goes away; it just gets smaller and smaller until it becomes “microplastic,” which then end up in the stomach of fish and other sea creatures, and then, inevitably, on our plates for dinner.
 
But change rarely comes easy, and while public opinion is generally in favor of the ban, it will most likely take a while to adjust. Going to the store will now require people to think ahead, remembering to keep reusable bags in their purses and backpacks at all times. Starting to reevaluate humanity’s relationship to plastic will take serious effort and willpower. It will take work, and the whole point of plastic was that it took zero work. Making consumers care and want to make the change is half the battle, which is why grassroots efforts to promote ending plastic usage are so important, like the Plastic Free July campaign that operates in 150 countries and is encouraging people to go plastic free for a month as a way to help form new habits.
 
 
Chilean surfer Ramon Navarro collecting plastics on a beach in the Maldives. Photo: Corona and Parley for the OceansChilean surfer Ramon Navarro collecting plastics on a beach in the Maldives. Photo: Corona and Parley for the Oceans


 

But this reporter has seen a few things that make her think that the change is more than underway here in Chile. Go to any weekend street market in the country and enterprising creative minds are making reusable cotton bags with all manner of whimsical or trendy designs. People are indeed increasingly bringing their own reusable bags to the grocery store, and the stores are now promoting their own reusable options.
 
And the moment when, as I was preparing to leave my boyfriend’s mother’s house after lunch, she waylaid me with a “Oh wait, I almost forgot!” before disappearing into another room and emerging a few minutes later bearing an armload of reusable cotton bags in varied styles.
 
“Here, take a few to use! I just bought a bunch!” She fanned them out along her arm.
 
I told her we already had many such bags at home, but she insisted. I selected one with a pattern similar to that of aspen bark. I now use it most times I go shopping. But what I loved most of all about the encounter was her enthusiasm, her eagerness to share and make sure that those she cared about could also take part in using fewer plastic bags. It was the passing on of the responsibility, the “let’s do it together.”
 
We all move forward together so we can change together.
 
 

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