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Chile Starts Implementing Ban On Stores Giving Customers Plastic Bags


Chile is the first country in Latin America to ban businesses from giving out plastic bags. Chileans use, on average, about 200 plastic bags per person a year, so this will be quite an adjustment. Reporter Paige Sutherland brings us this story from Santiago.

PAIGE SUTHERLAND, BYLINE: These days, spontaneity and shopping don't go together in Chile. That's after the government recently decided to ban the commercial use of plastic bags across the country. Just ask Vanessa Cornejo. She's at the supermarket trying to figure out what to do with her groceries.

VANESSA CORNEJO: I have maybe 20 bags for these recycled bags or maybe more. I remembered maybe only twice per last four months (laughter). I went with my bags.

SUTHERLAND: Cornejo says this slight inconvenience is worth it.

CORNEJO: I need to take conscious that if I don't recycle, if I use plastic bags for all things every day, it's not only bad for me, it's bad for my son, for my daughter, for my friends. It's for the future.

SUTHERLAND: Under the new law, large stores can hand out two bags per customer until February. Meanwhile, smaller stores have until August 2020. After the deadlines, those out of compliance will face fines of nearly $400 per bag. But this law didn't pass without some noise from the plastic industry, which appealed it to the country's highest court and lost. Magdalena Balcells heads the plastic association in Chile. She says the law just isn't effective.

MAGDALENA BALCELLS: Banning a product just make us demonize that product but doesn't make us be more medium in long term and sustainable society.

SUTHERLAND: Each year, Chile consumes more than 3.4 billion plastic bags. Most of them end up in a landfill or in the countryside or floating in the sea. These bags can drastically affect ecosystems and harm wildlife. Matias Asun is the director of Greenpeace in Chile. He says plastic is not just a Chile problem. More countries need to step up and follow suit.

MATIAS ASUN: Plastic is knocking on our doors, you know? It's appearing everywhere. And the amount of plastic we are consuming, it's alarming. And it seems like developing countries that are now leaving those miserable states of poverty are doing that by consuming more plastic.

SUTHERLAND: So far, only a handful of countries around the world have enforced nationwide bans on plastic bags, most of them in Africa. In Kenya, you can face jail time for even carrying a plastic bag. The Chilean government is also working to drastically increase its recycling infrastructure in the coming years and even has a campaign to reduce the use of plastic straws. Guillermo Gonzalez is head of Chile's recycling department. He says although plastic bags only account for a small amount of the country's total waste, the bag ban is a huge milestone towards changing the culture in Chile.

GUILLERMO GONZALEZ: You are reminding everyone every time you go to the grocery store, you know? This is not this abstract campaign that lasted for a couple weeks and then you never heard about it anymore. It really touches your life. And that is really powerful, you know, in terms of changing people's habits, people's attitudes.

ASUN: That is if people remember to bring their reusable bag shopping. For NPR News, I'm Paige Sutherland in Santiago, Chile.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBLEBUCKET SONG, "MY LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Sutherland