Latin America & Caribbean

Why some see Chile's plastic bag ban as a rubbish proposal

Plastic bags are stuck on a thorny bush in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Plastic bags get caught in trees and litter the landscape

"They are just everywhere and they are polluting our oceans, our fields, our cities," says Guillermo González of the 3.4 billion disposable plastic bags used in Chile every year.

Mr González heads the recycling department at Chile's environment ministry and is only too aware of the problems caused by the huge amount of plastic bags used by his compatriots.

It takes up to 400 years for a single plastic bag to degrade and very few get recycled, he says. "It is a very visible kind of waste and one that people are very concerned about."

Image copyright Claudio reyes/AFP
Image caption The discarded plastic bags are a problem for wildlife

In August, Chile became the first country in Latin America to ban stores from handing out free plastic bags to shoppers. Under the new rules, anyone who goes to a store will either have to buy a re-usable bag or bring their own.

Image caption The ban will come into force for larger stores in February 2019 but many shops have already stopped handing out free plastic bags

The bill passed unanimously in both chambers of Congress and surveys showed that 95% of Chileans supported it.

Under the new rules, large stores will be allowed to hand out two single-use plastic bags per person and those handing out more will face fines of nearly $400 (£315) per bag.

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Come February large stores will no longer be allowed to hand out these bags. Small stores have been given until August 2020 to implement the changes, but many businesses and even entire communities have already enforced the full ban.

Waning enthusiasm

And already, support has begun to wane.

Having to pay for the bags has not made Santiago resident Vanessa Cornejo change her habits. She says that even though she now has a collection of more than 20 re-usable bags at home, "I remembered maybe only twice in the last four months to bring them".

Image caption Some Chileans now remember to bring cloth or other re-usable bags but many others still forget

Ms Cornejo thinks stores need to do more than just charge for re-usable plastic bags: "They should offer different options such as paper or other recycled material rather than people just having to buy a different [plastic] bag."

Magdalena Balcells heads Chile's plastic industry association Asipla. She too thinks that the law fails to offer shoppers incentives to switch to something greener.

"Will there be fewer plastic bags in the supermarkets? Yes. But will people stop using plastic bags? Of course not, because there is no law guiding you to go in that direction," she says.

More rubbish?

Stores charge roughly the equivalent of $1 for each re-usable bag and for Chileans like Sandra Jofre Rojas, a maid from a low-income neighbourhood, that means that, unlike Vanessa Cornejo, she cannot afford to forget her bags when she goes shopping.

Image caption Sandra Jofre Rojas says the ban is hitting poor people

"Here in Chile you have the rich, the middle class and the poor - what are the poor to do?" she asks. She says she will now sometimes buy fewer groceries to avoid having to pay for new bags.

But there is another thing troubling Ms Jofre. Like 94% of Chileans, she used to use the free plastic bags shops handed out to dispose of her rubbish. Now she has to buy rubbish bags.

"This expense wasn't there before," she says. "Now we have to invest both in re-usable bags and buy rubbish bags - financially, it's not good for me and it's still plastic."

Given these concerns, some are worried that those who cannot afford rubbish bags might end up dumping their rubbish in the streets, leading to more pollution, not less.

Life-changing?

Environmental groups in Chile back the new law but stress it can only be a first step.

Image caption Matías Asún says plastic in food packaging should also be looked at

"Plastic is knocking on our doors, it is appearing everywhere," says Matías Asún, the director of environmental group Greenpeace in Chile.

"It is important for us to understand that if we want to have a big impact we need to reduce plastics being sold elsewhere like in food packaging, otherwise this ban could be irrelevant."

Besides the ban, the Chilean government also started a campaign to reduce plastic straws, it plans to increase the country's recycling infrastructure tenfold and has recently signed a global commitment to reduce plastics significantly by 2025.

Mr González is convinced banning plastic bags is a move in the right direction.

"You are reminded every time you go to the grocery store that this is not an abstract campaign that lasts for a couple weeks and you never hear about anymore," he says.

"It really touches your life and that is really powerful in terms of changing people's habits, people's attitudes to plastic and the recycling challenge that we have as a country."

Update 10 December: This article was updated to clarify that the bag ban is part of a wider government campaign to reduce plastic use.