What is the plastic bag tax and how effective has it been?

What is the plastic bag tax?


As governments around the world became more and more aware of the negative impact plastic bags such as those you carry your shopping in were having on the environment, action was taken across the world to reduce the footprint.

Data tells us that a tax on single-use bags has reduced around 26 per cent of plastic bag usage year-on-year in 2019-2020. This is the equivalent to 54 bags per household each year. There is still a lot more work to do, but in regions such as Europe, North America and Africa, this is a great start.


Who Brought In The Plastic Bag Tax?

The first introduction of a formal plastic bag tax was in Ireland, when the Irish Government introduced a 0.15 EUR environmental levy on plastic bags at point of sale. The goal being to encourage alternatives, reduce use of single-use plastic bags and thus reduce environmental impact.

Since then, many countries around the world have followed suit – mostly the USA, Africa and Europe. It’s been the developing countries most interested in outright banning certain types of plastic bags as they tend to have much worse pollution problems, particularly when it comes to plastic waste.

Africa in particular is the most prominent as they don’t have a great system of plastic management or waste management.


What Is The Plastic Bag Tax?

The ‘plastic bag tax’ is essentially a levy or charge where customers are asked to pay for plastic carry bags to carry items such as groceries in. Many countries have introduced this levy to reduce consumption or plastic bags and encourage people to bring their own fabric or other reusable bags. 

The full amount for these plastic bags must be charged at the checkout by retailers and is recorded on the receipt/invoice. Single-use carry bags in particular, are a big problem worldwide, with research in 2009 showing that the US alone used around 100 billion of these bags. Worldwide, this number was around 500 billion to 1.5 trillion. Much of which ends up in landfill or even worse, disposed of in the environment.


Who Has A Plastic Bag Tax?

In 2021, it was estimated that around 32 countries had introduced a tax or fee to limit plastic bag use, and much of these were located in Europe. As mentioned, developing countries such as Africa have also been early adopters of this levy.

Exceptions currently include Italy, Austria and France, with Germany banning certain types of plastic bags in favor of compostable bags from this year (2022). This trend of switching out traditional plastic for compostable is also popular in other countries.

Many States across the United States have implemented or are planning to implement a plastic bag ban to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that end up in landfill and encourage consumers to consider reusable or bioplastics in their place.

In the United States, eight States have currently banned single-use plastic bags, these include: California, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, Maine and Vermont. All States passed legislation to ban plastic bags in stores.

China has a plastic bag ban and has had since 2008 while introducing a fee for the sturdier bags. In 2022, China decided to ban all non-compostable bags for the entire country by 2022. Australia doesn’t currently have a country-wide ban or fees on plastic bags, however some States have enacted a ban and charge already. India’s ban is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more about the US and their bag ban here.

United States Plastic Bag Legislation By State

Do Different Countries Have Different Bans/Taxes?

The severity or extent to which plastic bag bans and taxes exist around the world will differ from country to country. As discussed, some countries have a tax and others have completely banned all traditional plastic bags in favor of compostable bags or reusable.

Some countries will also expect both a tax and compostable plastic from consumers. Other countries may limit the production or import of single-use plastic bags. This includes some States in the US where consumers can’t purchase traditional plastic bags at all or access them online.

Find out more about the US States’ approach in Massachusetts.


Why Are Plastic Bags Bad?

Traditional plastic – the type your soft drink bottles, shampoo bottles, plastic bags and takeaway containers are made from – has been around since 1907 and even earlier for the first synthetic plastic created in the 1800s. 

Plastic is made from materials such as crude oil, gas, coal, cellulose and salt which are seen as natural materials or resources. The materials undergo a refining process which essentially is then treated by heat and ‘cracked’ before being combined with other materials to create different plastic types to turn into plastics you can use.‘Cracking’ means the degradation of the materials by heating without oxygen – this is the main process breaking down the complex carbons into smaller ‘pieces’ creating the new chemicals for end result.

Unfortunately, because crude oil and natural gas are the main ingredients, this makes the plastic in many cases toxic either to people, animals or the environment when breaking down. Manufacturing products from materials such as crude oil is also bad for the environment, releasing carbon dioxide into the air, and oil itself being toxic to animals and the environment on many levels.

Manufacturing of plastic also uses high amounts of electricity and water and the impact of plastic when it breaks down over decades or centuries contributes toxic residue and pollution for the environment, wildlife and marine life.


Different Types Of Traditional Plastic

What Is The Lifecycle Of Plastic?

Plastic doesn’t ever completely break down, ending up in small particles after decades to centuries in the soil, water or air. In some ways, the lifecycle of plastics is really never ending as it doesn’t ever completely decompose. It’s also important to understand that different plastics and products breakdown at different rates. The lifecycle of standard plastic items is as follows:

  1. Manufacturing process – gathering materials, combining and creating the basic plastic.
  2. Production process – molding, adding dyes or additives, changing to heat resistant or bacteria resistant.
  3. Plastic usage – how we use it i.e. toys, water bottles, packaging.
  4. Some plastics can be recycled or reused – think water bottles that can be recycled, reusable water bottles.
  5. Non-recycled plastic ends up in landfills or the natural environment – around 90 per cent or more of all plastics end up like this.
  6. Plastic takes up to centuries to break down into small particles that will never disappear.

Read more about the toxicity of plastic in this blog.


What Are The Plastic Bag Alternatives?

With all the negative commentary about plastic, what are the alternatives? The great news is, there are a plethora of plastic alternatives, particularly for single-use items such as bags. Of course, not all plastic products can currently be replaced, but there are great alternatives for many everyday items.

There are: 

  • Reusable items such as fabric, metal, glass, bamboo
  • Compostable (bioplastic)
  • Biodegradable (bioplastic in part).

Bioplastics are a range of plastic alternatives made from renewable sources such as organic materials. These plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics.  They are currently more expensive to manufacture as they aren’t as widely used as traditional plastic yet.

Bioplastics are considered safer for the environment from their manufacturing process which uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter.

These plastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, tapioca starch and others. This means that when they are disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either quickly broken down (when it comes to landfill disposal) or composted back into the earth.

We can class compostable, PLA (polylactic acid) and biodegradable as the top three bioplastics on the market.

Read more about the different bioplastics in this blog.

Eco friendly products

Where Can I Find Alternative Bags?

There are more and more plastic alternatives to common products such as plastic or trash bags, food service, coffee cups, straws and others to try and combat this issue. Where plastic can be recycled, it should be, but unfortunately many people will simply throw it into the environment (littering) or landfill.

You can find many of these in your local grocery store, department store, hardware/garden store (trash bags and garden bags), homeware stores, pet stores (dog poop bags) and online. There are many options available and prices will go down as more people demand such products.

Always consider where you will dispose of your plastic alternatives and how this fits with current guidelines and the environment in which you’re disposing into.



The plastic bag tax has encouraged shoppers worldwide to consider plastic alternatives such as reusable bags, compostable or biodegradable by charging them a fee for either single-use carry bags or even sturdier or compostable bags.

Many countries around the world are leading the way with the ban – mostly in Europe but also Africa and the US. However, countries differ in their approach with some banning single-use plastics completely, others introducing a fee and some doing both.

The developing countries seem most interested in outright banning certain types of plastic bags as they tend to have much worse pollution problems, particularly when it comes to plastic waste. Africa in particular is the most prominent as they don’t have a great system of plastic management or waste management.

If you’re looking to use more plastic alternatives, consider reusable plastic bags such as fabric, recycled and others or compostable or biodegradable if you’re aware of how to properly dispose of these.



    We’re on the mission to research the best sustainable products and these are what we found, these are the questions that we are asking. Disclaimer, we are not scientist but we are heavy researchers and we are passionate about sustainability.