Chile has 6430 kilometres of coastline. And estimates indicate that until recently, every Chilean man, woman and child discarded 1.5 plastic bags each day, many into the rivers or directly into the sea. With its beaches and ocean becoming increasingly defiled by rubbish, the Chilean government has called enough. By Jeremy Torr
Santiago, 30 November 2018. Worried by ever-mounting piles of plastic on its Pacific beaches, Chile’s then-president Michelle Bachelet signed a bill in 2017 to ban plastic bags in more than 100 coastal areas. “Our fish are dying from plastics ingestion or strangulation. [Cleaning up] is a task in which everyone must collaborate,” she said in a speech at the time. That was just the start.
A few months ago the new president-elect of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, signed into law a nationwide ban on plastic bags. "We want to go from a throwaway culture, where everything is used and chucked away, to a healthy culture of recycling," he said. "There are 7.6 billion inhabitants in the world. We can't continue polluting as if each one of us owned the Earth."
The new law made Chile the first country in Latin America to ban retailers from handing out free plastic bags to shoppers. Under the new rules, all shoppers will have to buy a re-usable bag if they do not bring their own. Also, retailers will be limited to offer two single-use plastic bags per person. Companies who flout the new law will face fines of nearly $400 for each bag. And by early 2019, the law will tighten so no bags at all can be supplied; small outlets get til August 2020 to implement the ban.
Greenpeace Chile has also joined the anti-plastic movement, pushing for more awareness on sensible use of non-recyclable products. "Some simple questions before making a purchase make a big difference,” says Matías Asún, National Director of Greenpeace in Chile. “Is it really necessary, what I'm about to buy? Was the product manufactured in a sustainable way? Will it be polluted when discarded? Where was it manufactured? Under what circumstances? Is there a similar product but with less packaging?” Asun says the best approach to cutting down on discarded packaging and waste is that every person should make reasonable consumption as a first step.
More than just bags
"Over the past year, many big brands — including Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever — have released statements or plans to address the massive plastic pollution crisis they helped create,” says Greenpeace. “But their plans are not nearly ambitious enough.” Asún points that it is important to understand that “… if we want to have a big impact, we need to reduce plastics being sold elsewhere - like in food packaging - otherwise this ban could be irrelevant."
The reality is that public attitudes across South America are also shaped by poverty, lack of facilities, convenience, and traditional use patterns.
"Plastic bags are just everywhere and they are polluting our oceans, our fields, and our cities," says Guillermo González, head of the Circular Economy Office at the Chilean Environment Ministry. He estimates that almost 3.5 billion single-use plastic bags are handed out in Chile every year. “This is a very visible kind of waste and one that people are very concerned about. And very little gets recycled,” he adds."
But González is optimistic the bill is a step in the right direction. "People are reminded every time they go to the grocery store that this is not an abstract campaign that lasts for a couple weeks and you never hear about anymore,” he says. He is convinced the ban will be “really powerful in terms of changing people's habits, people's attitudes to plastic and the recycling challenge that we have," he adds.
The first step
The bill, which was opposed by the country’s plastic industry, was Piñera’s first major legislative change since taking office, and his environment minister Marcela Cubillos emphasised that the move was a result of the Chilean government realising that “our coast [pollution] imposes an obligation to be leaders in cleaning up our oceans.”
“This government is not obligated to make laws that benefit the interests of businesses, but rather to safeguard general wellbeing," pointed out the secretary-general to the presidency, Gonzalo Blumel. Now the rest of the world’s governments only need to follow his advice.