Growing Global Movement to Restrict Single-Use Plastic Bags

According to the United Nations, 127 countries have passed regulations on single-use plastic bags in an effort to incentivize consumers to use reusable bags when shopping.

The scope of these regulations varies from country to country—some countries outright ban all non-compostable plastic bags, while others permit use of thicker, reusable plastic bags for a fee.

United States

While there is no nationwide regulation of single-use plastic bags in the United States, as we previously reported, several jurisdictions, including Boston and Chicago, have restricted the ability of retail stores to provide single-use plastic bags by requiring retailers to charge a fee for each plastic bag provided. Additionally, New York and California have enacted statewide legislation that prohibits retailers from providing single-use plastic bags to customers.

New York’s plastic bag ban took effect on March 1, 2020. However, the state has yet to enforce the ban, as the plastic bag industry filed a lawsuit with the State Supreme Court in Albany shortly after the law took effect. Recently, the Court issued a decision rejecting the plastic bag industry’s claims that the law lacked “any sound or rational basis” and that the COVID-19 pandemic should halt enforcement of the law. Notably, the Court also struck down an exemption issued by regulators that would have permitted the use of thicker reusable plastic bags, concluding that the exemption conflicts with the purpose of the law. The state will begin enforcing the law on October 19, 2020.


Several European Union countries, including Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, have individually regulated or banned the use of single-use plastic bags. However, in 2019, the European Union approved a complete ban on single-use plastic bags that will take effect in all European Union member states by 2021. Despite calls to delay these restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has said that regulations will proceed as scheduled.

Although it is no longer a part of the European Union, the UK also has regulated single-use plastic bags by requiring customers to use reusable bags or pay five pence per single-use bag in retail sales


Canada recently announced that it will propose regulations for single-use plastics, including plastic bags. The Canadian Prime Minister cited the European Union’s decision to ban single-use plastics as the inspiration to join the growing movement to reduce plastic waste.

The proposed regulations aim to establish a minimum percentage of recycled content for plastic products and packaging and develop comprehensive national standards in line with current provincial and territorial plastic bag regulations. The federal government has requested written comments from industry members on the proposed measures. Specifically, the government is accepting feedback on (1) the minimum percentage of recycled content that would make a meaningful impact; (2) which products might not be able to comply with recycled-content requirements due to health, safety, technical or other concerns; (3) potential methods to verify compliance; and (4) other actions the government could take to incentivize the use of recycled-content in plastics. Comments will be accepted until December 9, 2020. The regulations are set to take effect in 2021.

Latin America

In May 2018, Chile became the first South American country to approve a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags. The Chilean law took effect in August 2020. Following Chile’s lead, several other countries in Latin America, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, have enacted laws that either ban single-use plastic bags or make them available for a fee. Additionally, 27 of the 32 Mexican states have regulated single-use plastic bags and Mexico City’s ban on single-use plastic bags took effect on January 1, 2020. Under the law, retailers may offer customers reusable bags for a fee.


In 2008, China placed a ban on all ultra-thin plastic bags and began requiring retailers to charge a fee for thicker plastic bags. In early 2020, China announced that it will expand its regulations on plastic bags by banning all single-use, non-degradable, non-compostable bags in all major cities by the end of 2020, and in the entire country by 2022. Other countries in Asia that ban or charge a fee for single-use plastic bags include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. Mongolia, Malaysia, and India also have proposed regulations on single-use plastic bags. However, India’s legislation has been stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the restrictions are seen as “too disruptive for the industry at a time when it is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses.”


34 of the 54 African countries have enacted regulations on single-use plastic bags. Of those, 16 countries completely ban single-use plastic bags. Moreover, Kenya currently has the world’s most punitive law penalizing manufacturers, imports, distributors, and users with a $38,000 fine or four-year jail term for violations.

Australia and New Zealand

Seven of the eight Australian states and territories have enacted laws regulating single-use plastic bags. These regulations range from outright banning single-use plastic bags in retail sales to exempting biodegradable or compostable bags from enforcement. In March 2020, New South Wales announced that it will become the last state to ban single-use plastic bags in Australia. At the federal level, legislation has been introduced that would implement certain single-use plastic bans over the next few years. However, it is unlikely the legislation will move forward before 2021.

In July 2019, New Zealand banned all single-use plastic bags, including biodegradable, compostable, and oxy-degradable plastics bags such as “heavier boutique-style plastic shopping bags commonly found at department or clothing stores.”

Primary Takeaway

The growing trend toward limiting or banning single-use plastic bags in retail sales is clear. Countries are increasingly seeing the damaging effects of plastic waste and recognizing the benefits of environmentally friendly alternatives. Retailers, particularly global retailers, should proactively prepare for these types of regulations by rolling out updated policies, purchasing and providing customers with appropriate bags, and training their employees on the applicable laws.


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