ELAW is pleased to present this overview of laws designed to tackle the growing problem of disposable plastic. This site currently focuses on laws applied from the design of the plastic product to final disposal. We also share summaries of select laws and decisions from courts addressing the problem. For the most part, we focus on laws from outside the U.S. and Europe.
Recognizing the serious environmental, health and economic impacts associated with plastic, governments around the world are enacting laws and policies to address plastic, especially single-use plastic. Manufacture and use of plastic around the world is growing. National Geographic shares eye-opening statistics including:
But one statistic stands out as a problem that can be addressed swiftly:
Governments are adopting an array of measures that take aim at single-use plastic manufacture, trade, use, and waste. Because product packaging is a major driver of plastic use, some lawmakers are focusing on ways to transform consumer product distribution that eliminates single-use packaging altogether.
Civil society players are urging their governments to adopt effective laws targeting the rampant production and overuse of single-use plastic. ELAW provides this resource to share strategies and encourage robust action to reduce single-use plastic and transform consumer product delivery systems worldwide.
It is important that efforts to tackle single-use plastic do not encourage other unsustainable practices, sometimes referred to as “false solutions.”
For decades, plastic manufacturers have touted recycling as the solution to plastic waste, but it turns out that less than 10% of the world’s plastic is recycled. iv In fact, industry leaders never expected recycling to be the answer, even while promoting it. Describing investigations into the plastic industry and its advocacy of recycling as a solution to accumulating plastic waste, a writer for FRONTLINE reports:
"Facing heightened public concern about ever-increasing amounts of garbage, the image of plastics was falling dramatically. State and local officials across the [U.S.] were considering banning some kinds of plastics in an effort to reduce waste and pollution.
But the industry had a plan; a way to fend off plastic bans and keep its sales growing.
It would publicly promote recycling as the solution to the waste crisis — despite internal industry doubts, from almost the beginning, that widespread plastic recycling could ever be economically viable."v
Currently, incineration (including waste-to-energy facilities), bioplastics, compostable plastics, down-cycling (recycling higher grade plastics into things such as clothing and roads), chemical recycling, and other strategies are touted as solutions to the growing plastic problem. None of these strategies alone or in combination with others is safe, feasible, or effective to address the sheer volume of single-use plastic that is being generated.
“Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels."vi These companies are going to continue promoting false solutions to ensure governments don’t curb the manufacture and use of plastic – and so people continue to grab a plastic straw to go with their to-go beverage in a plastic cup.
Well-designed laws will address unsustainable alternatives directly. One law that specifically bans biodegradable plastic as part of a ban on single use plastic is found in Jamaica. Jamaica’s law prohibits the import or distribution of single use plastic in commercial quantities, and includes degradable, biodegradable, oxo-degradable, photo degradable or compostable plastic bags.
A few good resources describing false solutions include:
In addition to banning problematic plastic products, it is helpful when a law promotes better alternatives. Laws supporting better product design are showing up in several places. The best examples are those implementing new delivery systems so that reusable products replace single-use.
For example, the city of Berkeley in California requires truly compostable packaging for take-out food and reusable containers for eat-in establishments. Rather than focus exclusively on single-use plastic, this ordinance addresses disposable packaging more broadly.
In Bangladesh, the government requires the use of jute bags for bulk commodities listed in the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act, 2010, such as rice, sugar, and fertilizer. The law has twice been expanded to encompass more products and requires jute packaging for preservation and transportation of 20 kg or more of 17 commodities throughout Bangladesh. The law not only reduces plastic waste, but supports Bangladesh’s jute industry.
While not going as far as replacing plastic with sustainable alternatives, some laws encourage companies to manufacture less-toxic plastic and plastic that is more likely to be recycled. For example, Zimbabwe encourages “the design of plastics containing few pollutants, are recyclable and durable when put to their intended use.” Plastic Packaging and Plastic Bottles Regulation S.I. 98, 2010, Art. 4.
Years ago, governments started banning the distribution of plastic bags, and then added other single-use plastic items such as straws, takeaway food packaging, and utensils. In response to the ubiquity of plastic in everyday life, single-use plastic bans have dramatically grown in numbers and in scope, as shown below.
In ELAW’s review of laws from around the world, we have found more than 35 jurisdictions that ban manufacture of at least some plastic products, and similar numbers (with significant overlap) of jurisdictions banning import. Laws banning the manufacture and import of single-use plastic products may be the most effective way to reduce consumption and disposal.
To be effective, bans must be easily enforced. For example, banned items should be clearly defined and easy to identify. Some bans on plastic bags describe a specific thickness measured in microns which can be difficult for an inspector to identify. If plastic thickness is used, one helpful measure is to require plastic thickness to be stamped on the bags. Banning distribution of all plastic carry bags is an even better way to make a ban clearly enforceable.
Some laws limit the distributors that are covered, which can make a ban harder to enforce. For example, Taiwan's 2019 law applies to department stores in shopping centers but not to chain convenience stores and fast food facilities found in the same shopping centers. See, Environmental Protection Administration, Executive Yuan Huan-Shu-Fei-Tzu No. 1080056916 (8 August 2019).
Finally, many otherwise strong bans are weakened by inclusion of a long list of exemptions. For example, Antigua and Barbuda bans import, distribution, sale and use of polyethylene or petroleum-based shopping bags, but includes a long list of bags exempt from the ban and allows the Minister responsible for Trade, Commerce & Industry, Sports, Culture and National Festivals to exempt other bags.
Single-use plastic bans present an opportunity to encourage related reforms that address waste management problems and encourage more sustainable products.
For more information, see False Solutions and Supporting Better Product Design and Promoting More Sustainable Alternatives.
Separate from addressing the manufacture and use of the products themselves, some countries are banning the import and export of plastic waste. For example, Senegal bans the import of plastic waste and the export of waste unless the importing country allows the import and has adequate treatment facilities. Senegal, Loi n° 2020-04 (8 January 2020), Arts. 19-20.
Closely related to bans are taxes/levies/fees on plastic bags and other single-use plastic products. Some laws implement a mixed approach, banning some items and taxing others in an effort to discourage their use. This approach can help ensure that banned items are not simply replaced by other disposable items. For example, a 2003 South African law bans bags less than 24 microns thick and taxes thicker bags, which encourages use of reusable carry bags.
Most examples of single-use plastic taxes and fees are imposed on consumers. However, these fiscal measures can be imposed at other points of the production chain to promote more sustainable products and better reflect external costs of plastic production and use. For example, Algeria imposes a Value Added Tax (VAT) on plastic bags imported and produced locally.
Deposit-refund systems (DRS) (also known as deposit-refund schemes or bottle bills) have a long history of improving collection of refillable and recyclable containers. These programs generally require the consumer to pay a small deposit at purchase that is refunded when the container is returned to the retailer or to a collection center. These laws most commonly apply to beverage containers, but could easily be expanded to cover other plastic products as well.
Whether a DRS is the right program in a jurisdiction will depend on factors including whether there are people dependent on collecting and selling these items who would be displaced by a more formal system.
Some DRS laws are designed to put the costs of the program on producers (including importers and distributors). DRS can be one element of an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme.
Recently, many governments, civil society, and others are promoting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as a strategy to reduce the growing menace of plastic.x
While some advocates applaud EPR as a way to ensure producers take responsibility for reclaiming and reducing waste, others see it as another way to continue unsustainable disposable use practices. EPR programs need to be well designed to ensure good outcomes.
Thomas Lindqvist is credited with developing the concept of EPR in 1990. More recently, Lindqvist defined EPR as:
[A] policy principle to promote total life cycle environmental improvements of product systems by extending the responsibilities of the manufacturer of the product to various parts of the entire life cycle of the product, and especially to the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product. xi
Lindqvist hypothesizes that EPR programs are popular across jurisdictions because they help tackle the waste problem while putting the cost of the program on the manufacturers and distributors, rather than on governments and taxpayers.xii Strong EPR programs shift responsibility of implementing the program (such as collecting used plastic products), and/or financing the program, on those responsible for putting the product in the market. In principle, this should lead producers to adopt more sustainable production models, designs and materials.
EPR does not refer to one specific program. Instead, it describes a principle that guides a set of instruments adopted to help improve products and product delivery systems to reduce associated environmental, social, and health impacts. Lindqvist explains that EPR is implemented through a mix of “administrative, economic, and informative policy instruments.”xiii
In Europe, EPR has gained a specific meaning and there are some well-developed EPR programs in place.xiv However, in other places, EPR may look different.
The general concept of EPR programs is that brand owners/producers become responsible for covering the full environmental and social costs associated with their products. In the realm of plastics, EPR is generally aimed at requiring producers or brand owners to pay the cost of recovering the plastic packaging from their products (or the plastic product itself) and managing the recovered plastic in the most environmentally-sustainable method possible which may include reuse, repair, or recycling. Effective EPR programs avoid final disposal (landfilling or incineration) to the greatest extent possible. If designed well, EPR programs encourage manufacturers and distributors of products to reduce packaging or improve packaging design to limit waste. In addition, EPR can reduce the need for virgin resources, by increasing reuse of material.
While a robust EPR program might be the end goal, a step-wise approach to implementation using simpler programs may be appropriate. For example, a jurisdiction could require companies distributing beverage containers to reclaim the containers and pay the cost of preparing them for reuse, mechanically recycling them, or, as a last resort, properly disposing of them. Where community members already informally collect these containers to sell, a new program should include and fund those already doing the work. Such a program could include fees to cover education programs or other steps toward a holistic approach to reduce plastic waste.
A jurisdiction seeking to launch a successful EPR program must have related programs in place, or commit to developing them on a parallel track. For example, an existing recycling program can help other EPR programs succeed.
Jurisdictions that do not have a recycling market or other prerequisites for a comprehensive EPR program might adopt elements that can stand alone such as:
For example, the Returnable Containers law in Barbados requires any entity that sells beverages (for use off-site) in containers covered by the Act, to accept any qualifying empty container and provide the refund value. Id. at sec. 4(1). In turn, distributors must accept qualifying beverage containers of brands they distribute from retailers and refund the value of each container. Id. at sec. 4(2). If beverage containers returned to the distributor are unusable or not reused, they must be disposed of in accordance with applicable waste laws. Id. at sec. 6(1).
The Returnable Containers law is an example of an EPR program, because it requires distributors to take back the plastic bottles they sell. The law in Barbados is coupled with a ban on import, distribution, sale and use of single use plastic containers (other than those identified in the Returnable Containers law), cutlery, straws, and plastic bags made with petroleum-based resin. Control of Disposable Plastics Act, 2019.
Simple requirements could make businesses responsible for collecting other material as well.
Preliminary Design Questions
To be successful, an EPR program must be designed to operate in the local context where it will be implemented. EPR systems should be created through a transparent, participatory process led by the government that brings in all stakeholders. Such a process would create opportunities for many views, including people working informally in the waste sector and those creating new businesses that reduce the use of single-use products and delivery systems.
In designing a program, two big questions must be addressed first, and there are divergent opinions, with no consensus about which answers lead to the strongest EPR programs with regard to these two issues:
1. Products Covered
Which products to include in an EPR program is a critical first question. There are at least three points-of-view:
2. Role of the Producer
The second big question is whether the EPR program should be “operational” (meaning that the producers themselves run the program) or “financial” (meaning that the producers pay the local government or others to run the program).
The choice depends on many factors, including whether there is rigorous government oversight and safeguards against corruption. Financial programs preserve flexibility to accommodate informal and community-based recycling collection programs and other initiatives that support the local economy.
Overall Program Design
With these points highlighted, we can add more generally that an effective EPR program should include the following characteristics or components:
Compliance and Enforcement
Incorporating Local Workers and Businesses
Treatment of the Product
Other Program Elements
Finally, none of these programs targeting single-use plastic will be successful without education. Some laws require education to help raise public awareness of the need to reduce use of plastic.
Several organizations have developed and compiled helpful educational resources, including the following:
"For purposes of enforcing the provisions of this Act or its implementing rules and regulations, any citizen may file an appropriate civil, criminal or administrative action in the proper courts/bodies. . . .
The Court shall exempt such action from the payment of filing fees and shall, likewise, upon prima facie showing of the non-enforcement or violation complained of, exempt the plaintiff from the filing of an injunction bond for the issuance of a preliminary injunction.
In the event that the citizen should prevail, the Court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees, moral damages and litigation costs as appropriate."
Philippines Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, Sec.52.
Paraguay’s Integral Waste Management Regulations (Decree 7391) requires municipalities to promote waste pickers participation in the recovery of waste (article 62), but also expressly prohibits waste pickers activities in final waste confinement areas (landfills) (article 67).
"Los Municipios promoverán la participación organizada de los recicladores y/o segregadores, en las actividades de recuperación y aprovechamiento de los residuos sólidos." Art. 62.
"Se prohíbe el desarrollo de las actividades de los segregadores en las áreas de confinamiento de los residuos sólidos." Art. 67.
Bolivia’s waste law includes a recognition of the work of waste pickers, however, the Decree approving regulations for this law, requires the Ministry of the Environment to pass additional rules to set up a registry and authorizations for informal waste pickers.
The rules have not been adopted.
"Se reconoce la actividad de personas naturales o jurídicas dedicadas a la recuperación de residuos . . . para su aprovechamiento y la generación de empleos dignos como forma de subsistencia. . . .
[E]l Estado . . . promoverá el apoyo a este sector, a través de programas de formalización y asistencia técnica, orientados a mejora condiciones de trabajo, salud y generación de ingresos." Ley 755 of Integral Waste Management, Art. 18.
"El Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua, emitirá la normativa para el registro y autorización de las personas que realizan actividades de recuperación y acopio de residuos reciclables.
. . . [T]oda persona natural o jurídica que realice las actividades . . . deberá contar con el registro y autorización correspondiente." Supreme Decree 2954, Art. 9.
In Argentina, Buenos Aires “Zero Waste” law recognizes the work of informal recyclers and gives them priority to collect, transport, and separate dry urban waste. See, Art. 43 of the law. Accordingly, associations of informal recyclers were awarded a public bidding contract over the collection, transportation, and separation of dry urban waste in Buenos Aires. The tender contract terms include several programs to provide social inclusion, benefits, child labor eradication, logistical support, among other services to allow waste pickers to carry out their functions. Excerpts of the public tender contract are available from the Federación Argentina de Cartoneros, Carreros y Recicladores.
In the Philippines, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 defines "resource recovery" to refer to "the collection, extraction or recovery of recyclable materials from the waste stream for the purpose of recycling, generating energy or producing a product suitable for beneficial use: Provided, That, such resource recovery facilities exclude incineration." Art. 2(dd).
Uruguay also bans burning waste: "[Q]ueda prohibido: . . . La quema de residuos." Ley 19.829, Art. 52
Governments are addressing the problem of plastic differently. Therefore, this resource is not limited to single-use plastic law bans or regulations. We include relevant provisions whether they come from stand-alone laws, environmental codes, health codes, waste management laws, or customs laws. Currently, this resource focuses on laws applied from the design of the plastic product to final disposal.
Research for this project focused outside the U.S. and Europe.
ELAW U.S. appreciates information generously shared with us by public interest lawyers around the world who make up the ELAW Network, as well as information, advice and review of the section on EPR by: Mao Da, China ZW Alliance; Xavier Sun, Taiwan ZW Coalition; Dharmesh Shah; Beth Grimberg, Polis; Sarah Doll, Safer States; Julliet Phillips, Environmental Investigation Agency; Delphine Levi Alvares and Larissa Copello, Zero Waste Europe; Taylor Cass Talbott, WIEGO; and Neil Tangri and Monica Wilson, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). Special thanks to Cecilia Allen and Doun Moon at GAIA.
In the Matter of the Further Investigation into Environmental and Socioeconomic Costs Under Minnesota Statutes Section 216B.2422, Subdivision 3, OAH 80-2500-31888, MPUC E-999/CI-14-643, Minn. Office of Admin. Hearings (April 15, 2016) [Note: This decision is only a recommendation that the MPUC is not obligated to follow.]