Gymnasium Wellingdorf (2015)

Reduction of Plastic Waste Through a Deposit System for Plastic Bags

1st place solution of the YES! 2015

Our general topic is the “circular economy”, which is about making the world’s economy more sustainable. This is a very interesting, but also a complex and difficult topic. So we focused on one single aspect: The life cycle of the common plastic bag.

We live in a time where things that we use frequently have just a short life cycle, such as electronic devices or packages for food. Of course, we are able to recycle, for instance, paper-based materials, but there is especially one material that is mostly used in a linear and not in a circular way. Nowadays, plastic is one of the most used materials for every kind of product. But the fact that recycling plastic is very expensive, difficult and produces highly toxic gases, leads to a very low recycling rate for plastic, which lies under 25 per cent worldwide.

Many plastic bags are not disposed of professionally. So they pollute the land and oceans and are a danger for the ecosystem and the animals. Because of their chemical properties, plastic bags are bad bio-degradable to non-biodegradable. Marine animals, like seabirds, eat these plastic wastes (ex.: tortoises mistake the plastic bags for jellyfish and fish the little particles for plankton) and perish or become diseased.

Sometimes, the plastic reaches the human body again by consumption of marine animals, for example, cod. Other environmental impacts followed by using plastic are carbon dioxide emissions due to incinerators. We discussed how to use plastic in a more eco-friendly and sustainable way. Without a doubt, fixing the whole problem is impossible. But we want to make a big step forward by rethinking the usage of plastic bags.

Capabilities and measures

Plastic bags are cheap or free, light and resilient. That is why so many people all over the world are using them. However, they are just used one time before consumers are throwing them away and buy new ones, for instance, the next time they buy groceries.

The European Union adopted a law in 2015 that all members of the Union are allowed to prohibit the selling of plastic bags completely, to increase taxes on them, or to introduce binding reduction goals. These are maximal 90 plastic bags p. P./a till 31.12. 2019 and 40plastic bags p. P./a till 31.12. 2025. Germany has a consumption of 76 bags p. P./a. Until today, Germany did not change anything considering the usage of plastic bags even though
this topic is so important.

The first upcoming and simplest solution to this problem would be to prohibit selling plastic bags: everyone would be forced to use alternatives such as paper bags. But these alternatives are not as eco-friendly and convenient as they seem to be. On the one hand, paper bags are very sustainable because you can recycle them to make new ones. On the other hand, recycling those uses a lot of water and energy. Furthermore many customers consider them impractical.
So we thought about a new and different way to make the usage of plastic bags more

YES! Solution
There are three simple and common methods that can reduce the waste of plastic bags, we came up with:

1. Regulatory Law:

  • legal prohibition of non-recyclable plastics or
  • maximum amount of plastic bags per head in a year

The big advantage of using regulatory laws is that it is compulsory for both customers and producers. But, as stated earlier, a prohibition of non-recyclable plastics is not effective because highly recyclable one is still too expensive in production and for instance, paper bags are not as ecofriendly as one might think they are. Furthermore, it is difficult to control the maximal amount if plastic bags used by households in a single year.

2. Financial Incentives:

  • deposit or
  • taxation

To charge a deposit would stop the environmental pollution based on plastic bags thrown away because the customers would collect them and bring them back to the vendor to get back their money. On the downside, the overall amount of plastic bags would not necessarily decrease and the life cycle of the bags would remain the same.

The introduction of a tax on plastic bags can have beneficial outcomes, since the price of a single bag is higher than the amount of money a consumer is willing to pay. TheRepublic of Ireland is a good case study for the effectiveness of a tax on plastic bags:

In March 2002, a 15 €-Cent tax was levied on each plastic carrier bag purchased by customers in supermarkets. This measure led to a change in consumer’s behavior. One advantage was that consumers stopped using as many bags as they wanted and they were encouraged to reuse the plastic bags. The tax was a huge success. Within three months of the tax being introduced, the number of plastic bags that were handed out was reduced by 90 percent and after five months, 3.5 million € had been raised. This amount of money is used to supply an environmental fund, which finances recycling
infrastructure. On first of July, the tax was raised to 22 €-Cents. After this increase, the last supermarkets stopped selling plastic bags. The results are striking: there is not a single plastic carrier bag left in supermarkets and they all have been replaced by paper or reusable bags. So the Irish experience in the struggle against littering has proved so successful that other EU countries are now considering following their example. Some facts about the effectiveness of the tax: the proportion of plastic bags of the waste found in environment slumped from 5 percent to 0.22 percent. The administrative costs lay by about 3 percent of the income and are thereby very low. The reactions of the retailer and also of the customers were positive. The tax has a high acceptance in Ireland, because it was developed in close collaboration between politics and agents of the economy and customers.

3. Subsidisation for research in eco-friendly plastics
We think that fostering research in in ecofriendly plastics is one of the most important aspects when talking about decreasing plastic pollution in general. But our goal is to find a solution that could be realized in a short period of time. No one knows how long it will take to find the perfect material to replace the classic plastic.

Our YES!-Solution combines all three methods to a single one that takes advantage of the strength of each concept and combines them.
The goal is to establish a more robust plastic bag which has got a significantly longer working life, if used properly. On the plastic bags are signs of deposit, similar to the one on the PET bottles. The deposit amounts are a large part of the purchase price, so if the plastic bags are being returned, there will be only minimal costs for the user. Those plastic bags will be used again. In order to prevent the consumer from buying the current plastic bags, a drastic price increase is needed, to make the usage of the robust plastic bag more attractive. In the long run, the single-usage-plastic-bags will be banned completely by law.

The producers of the plastic bags are responsible for the production and recycling of the new bag. Taking back the plastic bags and paying out of the deposit lies in the responsibility of commerce, as known from returnable bottles. The usage of the robust plastic bags can be one important part of a sustainable and green business strategy implemented by retailers.
The retailers, including supermarkets and fashion stores, can choose an individual design to communicate their corporate social responsibility. Apart from that, there are still alternatives to plastic bags, for example, recycled paper bags or consumers bring and use their own baskets or cotton bags.

Overall, the solution comprises the adoption of the deposit system of PET bottles. For simplicity, we suggest a deposit of 25 €-Cents per plastic bag, like the deposit for bottles. Single-usage-plastic-bags and paper bags have to be taxed by the same amount so the retailers have an incentive to switch to the new deposit system. The retailers have the choice of paying the tax or using the newly developed plastic bags and introducing the deposit system. The revenues of the tax can be used to subsidize the research of alternative materials like ecofriendly plastics.

As a new and better plastic bag, we have found a fold-up reusable carrying bag made of polyester. It is a particularly, intelligent and ecofriendly bag which is very robust and can carry about 10 kilograms. The customer can fold the plastic bag to the size of a package of handkerchiefs after using and poke it into an attached fastener bag. The bag only weighs 31 grams, not more than a normal plastic bag.

Our solution is simple but not as easy to implement, since the infrastructure for it has to be established. Especially Germany has to be a pioneer in environmental protection. Its exemplary function will lead many other countries, even outside the EU, to make an effort to fight against the pollution by plastic. Oil is limited and plastic loses its quality when it is recycled too often. Unfortunately, a totally environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags does not exist right now. One of the main points of this project is that the customers understand the necessity to decrease the amount
of plastic used in packaging, bags, etc. in general. The described process is lengthy, especially when it comes to organizations, but it is worthwhile because it ensures the environmental protection in the long run.
To get an impression how people might react on the introduction of a deposit system for plastic bags, one can draw on the experiences made after the introduction of a deposit system for PET bottles. At first, the deposit return was not used as much as estimated. This was due to a bad system that was not well thought through and led to confusion on how and where the bottles should be returned. After the current system was introduced, the deposit
returns increased rapidly because it became a lot easier. You can return all of your bottles marked as deposit bottles in every store where they are sold. In 2006 about 20 percent of the bottles were not returned and thrown away. Today´s numbers show that only 5 percent of the deposit bottles are not returned. From 2009 to 2012, the percentage of sold disposable glass bottles increased only by 0.9 percent, disposable PET bottles by 13.1 percent and cans (up to 1 liter) by 63.8 percent. Only the numbers of returnable glass bottles sold decreased by 4.1 percent. So we see that the German population is willing to return their bottles if there is a simple, universal system. Other examples around the world show the same statistics. Countries like Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, 14 States of the USA and two Australian States have similar systems. This experience makes us confident, that a deposit system for plastic bags will also be accepted by customers.

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Photo: YES!