Chile Wants to Ban Plastic Bags: Is That a Good Thing?

By: Andrew Kemmer

As many people know, seventy percent of the earth’s surface is ocean. The oceans produce most of our oxygen and absorb much of our carbon emissions.[1] The oceans are indispensable. 3 billion people rely on them for their livelihoods, and 1 billion people consume seafood as their primary “source of animal protein.”[2] But “over 10 million tonnes of litter” end up in the sea every year.[3] Some of that litter is microplastic[4], which might be able to be absorbed into fishes’ brains and alter their behavior.[5] In some parts of the ocean, “microplastics . . . outnumber plankton by six to one.”[6] If this doesn’t mean anything to you, let me explain further. Plankton is a blanket term for a number or organisms that are all too small to swim against the ocean current.[7] That includes organisms as small as bacteria and viruses, and plant and animal organisms including fish and invertebrate larvae.[8] As you can imagine, that covers a LOT of tiny organisms. Just one type of microscopic plankton, diatoms, are said to number in the quadrillions.[9] There are so many of them that they account for more photosynthesis than all of the tropical rainforests in the world![10] That is only one group of plankton species. There are six pieces of microplastic for every one of those diatoms and all the rest of the plankton in the oceans combined. And I haven’t even mentioned the big pieces of plastic yet.

Every year, countries that border the ocean deposit four to twelve million tons of plastic into the ocean. In turn, it becomes “plastic pollution,” which can be “mistaken for food by animals . . . clog[] drainage systems, or simply caus[e] significant aesthetic blight.”[11] Within the next thirty-five years there could be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish.[12] At this year’s annual Our Ocean Conference hosted by the EU, Chile committed to becoming the first American country to ban the use of plastic bags in its coastal cities.[13] That is significant because Chile has over 4,000 miles of coastline and ninety-seven percent of the 3.4 billion plastic bags that the country uses every year end up in a landfill or the ocean.[14] Ten companies operating in Chile also agreed to make changes in their production practices such as using more recyclable plastic.[15] This is all related to Chile trying to change its approach to pollution by drastically cutting down on the amount of plastic that it deposits in the ocean.[16] As a country, Chileans only recycle ten percent of their household waste. Last year Chile passed a new recycling law targeting just that. The legislation prioritizes six products for recycling, and the government is aiming for thirty percent of all household waste to be recycled by 2022.[17]

Zoomed out map of Chile with arrow pointing to it

Chile will not be the first country by a longshot to enact some form of a plastic bag ban or tax. There are more than forty countries worldwide that have either a ban or a tax in place for plastic bags,[18] and numerous cities in the United States have plastic bag bans or taxes in place.[19] So what can Chile learn from these countries and cities when implementing its own bag ban? The first hurdle that Chile will have to overcome is the plastics industry itself. One plastic bag distribution company, Plásticos Besalle, estimates that it will lose twenty-five percent of its sales if the ban takes place, and the industry will challenge the ban.[20] Companies allegedly[21] would prefer that Chile include plastic bags with its recent recycling law. While one of the target areas for the law is package wrapping, plastic bags are not one of the priority products.[22]

Chile will have to consider whether a plastic bag ban would actually be more effective than another solution such as fees for plastic bags. A plastic bag ban could have unintended results such as people dumping unwrapped trash or buying more plastic bags to dispose of waste in homes.[23] When Morocco banned plastic bags in 2016, “shops, street sellers, and retailers” stocked up on all the plastic bags they could get their hands on.[24] When England, by contrast, enacted a five pence charge to plastic bags in October 2015, the country’s usage of plastic bags dropped by eighty-five percent.[25] American cities have seen the same narrative play out; in the nation’s capital, a five cent charge on paper and plastic bags resulted in a sixty percent drop in single use bags.[26] Plastic bag manufacturers in Chile are already arguing that a bag fee would be more effective than a ban.[27] Plásticos Besalle has tried to make biodegradable bags, “but people don’t buy them because they are more expensive.”[28] On the other hand, exorbitant penalties for using plastic bags such as those found in Kenya might also be an effective way to implement a plastic bag ban.[29] In the past Kenya had tried to ban bags of a certain thickness, but that was never fully complied with. Traders in the country are now making money by selling other types of bags and baskets to customers who need a way to carry their goods.[30] 

Chile also must carefully consider its motivation behind banning plastic bags. If it is doing it solely for the broader environmental good then banning plastic is not necessarily the best option. Any bag, whether it be plastic, paper, or reusable cotton is going to have some negative environmental impact.[31] Some people argue that paper bags are actually more environmentally unfriendly than plastic because they “have a higher carbon footprint.”[32] Even reusable bags have some negatives to their use.[33] There are many variables to consider, and Adler concluded, “[t]he ideal city bag policy would probably involve charging for paper and plastic single-use bags, as New York City has decided to do, while giving out reusable recycled-plastic bags to those who need them, especially to low-income communities and seniors.”[34]

While an outright plastic bag ban might sound desirable, Chile could have an uphill battle both in passing a law like that. Furthermore, a plastic bag ban could, paradoxically, be less effective at reducing plastic bag use than charging consumers for plastic bags. Chile should, therefore, implement a plastic bag tax rather than an outright ban for the law to be most effective at reducing plastic bag usage within the country.


[1] European Union Generates Global Action for Our Ocean, European Commission: Press Release Database (Oct. 6, 2017),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] A microplastic is any piece of plastic that is smaller than “about the size of a sesame seed.” National Ocean Service, What are Microplastics?, NOAA, (last updated Oct. 10, 2017).

[5] Research on microplastics is young, so there is nothing conclusive about this study yet. But it is a starting point for future research on the effects of microplastics in fish and maybe, ultimately, humans. Erica Cirino, Report: Microplastic Can Penetrate Fish’s Brains, Altering Behavior, NewsDeeply (Oct. 9, 2017),

[6] European Union, Areas of Action, Our Ocean (2017)

[7] Plankton,, (last visited Oct. 17, 2017).

[8] Id.

[9] Michael Hanlon, Under the Microscope: Just a Splash of Seawater but Alive With Plankton, DailyMail (Nov. 6, 2007),

[10] David G. Mann, Diatoms, Tree of Life Web Project (2010),

[11] Charles Moore, Plastic Pollution, Encyclopaedia Brittanica (last visited Oct. 17, 2017).

[12] European Union Generates Global Action for Our Ocean, supra note 1.

[13] Our Ocean 2017 Commitments, Our Ocean (2017).

[14] Executive Summary for September 29, NewsDeeply (Sept. 29, 2017),

[15] Chile, Plasteurope (Oct. 16, 2017),

[16] Tom Azzopardi, Chile’s Plastics Industry Seeks to Avert Potential Bag Ban, Bloomberg BNA (Sept. 26, 2017),

[17] Id.

[18] Lily Kuo, After Issuing the World’s Harshest Ban on Plastic Bags, Kenya Adjusts to Life Without Them, Quartz (Aug. 31, 2017),

[19] See The Grocery Box Company Ltd., List by Country: ‘Bag Charges, Taxes, and Bans’, (last visited Oct. 21, 2017); see also Plastic Bag Bans in the World, Reuse This Bag,, (Last visited Oct. 21, 2017).

[20] Azzopardi, supra note 16.

[21] The president of the plastics industry association said that companies want plastic bags included in the recycling law. Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. (“94 percent of households in Chile use plastic bags to dispose of trash.”).

[24] Aida Alami, Going Green: Morocco Bans use of Plastic Bags, Aljazeera (July 1, 2016),

[25] Rebecca Smithers, England's Plastic Bag Usage Drops 85% Since 5p Charge Introduced, The Guardian (July 29, 2016),

[26] Jennie Romer, Why Carryout Bag Fees Are More Effective Than Plastic Bag Bans, Huffington Post (Jan. 20, 2017),

[27] Azzopardi, supra note 18.

[28] Id.

[29] Kuo, supra note 17 (penalties for “carrying, manufacturing, or importing plastic bags” include fines from $19,000 to $38,000 and a jail sentence of up to four years).

[30] Id.

[31] Ben Adler, Banning Plastic Bags is Great for the World, Right? Not so Fast, Wired (Jun. 10, 2016),

[32] Id.

[33] Cotton reusable bags pose problems because is a very thirsty plant. It consumes much more water than any vegetable and most meat, and most places do not recycle it currently. Id.

[34] Id.