The Swinging Pendulum of Population Policy in Iran

By Janet Larsen

The high cost of living and limited economic opportunities in Iran are a boon to birth control, as couples take steps to keep their families small. But the Iranian Parliament has recently debated punishing people who promote contraception. And on June 24, 2014, it voted 106 to 73 in favor of making it illegal to perform sterilization operations. Whether or not this becomes law, the discussion signifies a dramatic about-face from when the government offered free vasectomies.

Iran is often hailed as a population success story. Encouraged by an extensive family planning and education campaign supported by religious clerics, average fertility rates there fell from over six children born per woman in the early 1980s to two children during the first years of this century. In just one generation, Iran accomplished a demographic transition that took Western Europe centuries to achieve. While Iranian leadership has recently reverted to pro-natalist rhetoric and policies, urging women to stay home and have more babies, it is unlikely that the highly educated and economically stressed young population will revert to the high birth rates of their grandparents’ time.

Total Fertility Rate in Iran 1950-2015

As early as 1967, family planning was recognized as a human right in Iran, enshrined in a national policy introduced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The aim was to accelerate economic growth and improve the status of women, encouraging them to join the workforce. And although religious conservatives preached against the use of birth control, many women—particularly those living in cities—embraced the ability to control the number and spacing of their children with oral contraceptive pills. A 1973 law, which went into effect in 1976, loosened restrictions on male and female sterilization. In the mid-1970s, family planning promotion hit the mass media.

Then came the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Because of their association with western ideals, family planning programs were dismantled. The government encouraged procreation, paying allowances to families for each child. During the 1980–88 war with Iraq, more babies meant more soldiers, and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini extolled the benefits of large families. Iran’s population growth rate soared to near 4 percent, according to U.N. statistics—one of the world’s highest. By 1986, nearly half of Iran’s population was under the age of 15. (See data.)

After the war ended, the economy faltered. People in overcrowded and polluted cities had difficulty finding employment. Iran’s family planning program was revived, with the goal of limiting family size to three children. Hefty resources were allocated to make a wide variety of modern contraceptives available free of charge to all married couples. In 1990, the High Judicial Council affirmed that vasectomies were consistent with Islamic principles, making them socially acceptable again. Farzaneh Roudi of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) writes that a national family planning bill passed in 1993 called for an intensive population awareness campaign. Schools included courses on population, and the popular media were used to spread the message of “fewer children, better life.”

All this happened when female education was fast on the rise. The campaign stretched from the cities to the countryside, with rural “health houses” integrating family planning into primary health care. Religious leaders preached about the social benefits and responsibility of having smaller families, and issued fatwas—religious edicts with the strength of court orders—encouraging contraception, which engaged couples would learn about in a course they had to take before getting a marriage license. By 1994, just over half of childbearing-aged women in Iran were using modern contraception, up from 30 percent in 1989. The birth control pill was the most popular choice. An additional 19 percent used traditional methods to limit family size.

Family planning has continued to spread. A 2011 survey indicates that some 82 percent of Iranian women are trying to control their fertility, with over 70 percent of them using modern contraceptive methods. Condoms have become nearly as popular as birth control pills, an indication of Iranian men’s increasing role in limiting family size, helped along by large government purchases from Iran’s condom factory.

Modern Contraceptive Use by Method in Iran, 2011

Yet the family planning policy pendulum has swung back the other way, as evidenced by the recent Parliamentary vote. In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Parliament that two children were not enough and that women should focus on raising more. In 2010, he reinstated payments for each new child. By 2012 the Health Ministry’s “population control” budget was eliminated, devoted instead to growing larger families. Birth control is no longer subsidized, though a vibrant private industry means that it is still widely available.

Control over personal fertility is once again viewed by some conservatives as a dangerous western influence. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei called the 1990s’ actions that led to women controlling the size and the timing of their families, including his own role in the family planning campaign, a “mistake.”  The current president, Hassan Rohani, has not been particularly vocal on population, but in May 2014, Ayatollah Khamanei released a 14 point plan to raise population growth rates. The talk now is that Iran’s population should double to 150 million by 2050. The old television messages that urged families to stop at two children have been replaced; the Economist reports on a recent state-run broadcast of a prominent cleric urging families to have at least five children—like the Prophet Mohammed’s family—but a dozen would be even better.

Currently the highest fertility rates in the Middle East are in Yemen, a failing state by many measures, where women have four children or more on average (down from nearly seven at the end of the 1990s). In the last nationwide survey in 2006, just 19 percent of women in Yemen used modern contraceptives. Only half of Yemeni women know how to read, and while all the boys went to primary school in 2012, at least 58 percent of girls stayed home. Contrast that with Iran, where schooling is largely universal and women outnumber men at the university level. Some colleges in Iran have even introduced quotas to keep the male presence from falling further.

In country after country, when more girls are educated and stay in school longer, birth rates fall. With both traditional literacy and Internet use high in Iran (albeit an officially censored Internet), it will be hard to turn back the clock and send young Iranians rushing to have more children. PRB’s Roudi says that “Iran’s family planning program of the past two decades was successful because it met the needs of families. The new policy is solely top-down without considering peoples’ needs; that is why it won’t be successful.”

Female Secondary Education and Total Fertility Rates by Country, Latest Year

Nevertheless, anything that makes it harder to get reproductive health services and information could lead to an uptick in unplanned pregnancies and abortion. Abortion is illegal in Iran, punishable by a fine and imprisonment of up to five years, but it still happens in secretive and often unsafe conditions. Furthermore, there is a serious risk that if condoms become more expensive or hard to find, transmission of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, could increase.

The thought of Iran’s population doubling quickly—further crowding cities, worsening traffic jams, overwhelming classrooms, and upping unemployment—once struck fear into Iranian leaders. The country’s population is young, a relic from past ultra-high growth rates, and still growing at 1.3 percent a year, even as people leave in search of opportunity. If the current trend toward smaller families holds in spite of the urging to change course, Iran’s annual growth rate will drop below 0.5 percent by mid-century—a rate similar to that of a number of countries, including Japan and many in Western Europe, that have nearly stabilized their populations. While aging populations bring some problems, they pale in comparison to those that accompany overpopulation. Large numbers of young people with limited job prospects and uncertain futures can prove quite volatile, as recent history has shown. And further, water shortages are now considered a major security risk in Iran. With lakes shrinking and water tables falling from excessive withdrawals at the current population size, the safest path for Iran is to continue to move toward population stability.

Data and additional resources are available at

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China Leads World to Solar Power Record in 2013

By J. Matthew Roney

In the last two years, countries around the world have added almost as much new solar photovoltaics (PV) capacity as had been added since the invention of the solar cell. Nearly 38,000 megawatts of PV came online in 2013, a new annual record. In all, the world’s installed PV generating capacity is now close to 140,000 megawatts—enough to power each home in Germany. Falling costs and effective policies continue to drive tremendous growth in solar power.

World Cumulative Solar Photovoltaics Installations, 2000-2013

Solar cells consist of semiconductor materials—typically crystalline silicon—that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Made up of many cells, solar panels can be linked together into any number of system sizes, from multi-kilowatt residential rooftop systems to massive ground-mounted arrays measured in hundreds or thousands of megawatts.

China—the leading manufacturer of PV—had until recently installed very little solar power at home. Those days are over. Between 2010 and 2012, China’s PV capacity grew nearly ninefold to 7,000 megawatts. Then in 2013, China added at least 11,300 megawatts, the largest PV addition by any country in a single year. With 18,300 megawatts, China now trails only Germany (at 36,000 megawatts) in overall capacity. (See data.)

More than half of China’s new PV in 2013 was installed in the western provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang, and Qinghai, far from population centers. A 320-megawatt PV project—the world’s largest—was completed in late 2013 alongside the Longyangxia hydropower dam in Qinghai. As large project development in remote areas continues, China is also looking to increase the number of small systems that do not require long-distance electricity transmission, aiming for more than 8,000 megawatts of rooftop PV in 2014. It appears that China will soon lead the world in solar power as it does in wind: in May 2014, the government announced a PV target of 70,000 megawatts by 2017.

Cumulative Installed Solar Photovoltaics Capacity in Leading Countries, 2000-2013

To the east, Japan installed the second-most PV in 2013, adding 6,900 megawatts to reach 13,600 megawatts of solar power in operation. The main driver of this doubling was a generous feed-in tariff (FIT) introduced a year after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to promote renewable energy development. (In general, a FIT guarantees generators a certain price over a fixed term for the electricity they send to the grid. Most of the world’s PV development to date has been catalyzed by FITs.)

Small rooftop systems still dominate Japan’s PV landscape, but 2013 marked the first year when most new capacity came from larger projects. In early 2014, an 82-megawatt park—Japan’s largest—opened in Oita Prefecture. And in June 2014, Kyocera and four other companies agreed on plans for a 430-megawatt project on farmland in the Goto Islands off Nagasaki Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island. Solar panels will be mounted on stilts, allowing enough sunlight to pass through to crops. The electricity produced, capable of powering 140,000 homes, will be delivered by undersea cable to Kyushu. As PV development accelerates, Japan is fast approaching its 2020 target of 28,000 megawatts.

India nearly doubled its PV capacity in 2013. The western desert states of Gujarat and Rajasthan contain more than half of the country’s 2,300 megawatts of PV. In June 2014, shortly after his election as prime minister, Narendra Modi’s administration announced an expansion of the National Solar Mission goals for 2022—from 22,000 to 34,000 megawatts—in order to generate 3 percent of the country’s electricity from solar power. The solar consultancy Bridge to India notes that PV sited on just 6,200 square miles, about 0.5 percent of India’s land area, could generate 50 percent more electricity than India currently uses.

Of course, 300 million Indians still lack access to electricity, while hundreds of millions more experience frequent shortages due to an unreliable grid. The good news is that installing rooftop PV in rural areas is cheaper than building a central power plant and grid, and electricity from PV is now cheaper than that from diesel generators. In addition, in a country where irrigation pumps running on diesel or grid electricity chronically overdraw underground aquifers, solar power offers a solution. A new government program will help farmers buy solar-powered pumps if they switch to water-saving drip irrigation. This is a triple-win: water use drops without affecting yields, fossil fuel use declines, and the government saves up to $6 billion per year in diesel and electricity subsidies.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea grew its PV capacity 40 percent to nearly 1,500 megawatts in 2013. And Thailand expanded its Lopburi Solar Farm to 84 megawatts, part of an 80 percent boost in national solar installations to 700 megawatts.

With its 2013 PV boom, Asia unseated Europe to become the leading region in annual installations. Downward adjustments to renewable energy incentives in Europe slashed new PV installations there by more than one third. Germany reduced its FIT rates for new projects faster than planned in an attempt to save on payments, and that cut installation rates in half.

Reining in solar incentives has also slowed PV installations in Italy, now the third-ranked country in overall capacity with 17,600 megawatts. FIT rates for new PV plants were reduced beginning in mid-2011 and eventually eliminated in mid-2013. But PV system costs in Italy have fallen by 56–70 percent over the last five years, depending on size, a positive sign for PV competitiveness after the FIT. A recently-finished 700-kilowatt rooftop system on an Ikea store in Pisa, one of the first unsubsidized projects, will generate electricity at a price that rivals or bests the grid average.

Across the Atlantic, solar power is starting to take off in the United States. The country added some 4,800 megawatts in 2013, increasing its total PV capacity by 65 percent to 12,000 megawatts. Factors contributing to this growth include continually falling system costs (2013 saw an average 15 percent drop), utilities meeting state-mandated obligations to sell electricity from renewables, and home solar leasing arrangements gaining in popularity.

More than half of the new U.S. PV capacity in 2013 came online in California, long the leading solar state. In addition to small residential systems, many large solar parks are operating or under construction in California, including the two Solar Star projects slated for completion in late 2015. With a combined 580 megawatts, these two plants are expected to generate enough electricity for 250,000 homes. Arizona, which added 420 megawatts of PV in 2013, boasts the 290-megawatt Agua Caliente project outside Phoenix. Rounding out the top five states in 2013 were North Carolina (340 megawatts), New Jersey, and Massachusetts (240 megawatts each).

PV is gaining steam in other countries in the Americas as well. Canada added 440 megawatts to reach 1,200 megawatts in 2013. Mexico nearly doubled its PV capacity to 100 megawatts and is expected to reach 240 megawatts by the end of 2014. In Chile, the U.S. firm SunEdison announced in June 2014 the completion of the largest PV plant in Latin America, its 100-megawatt project in the Atacama Desert. And Brazil looks likely to nearly double its PV capacity to more than 70 megawatts in 2014.

Another sunbaked country building its PV capacity is Australia, now with 3,300 megawatts. One in seven homes there generates electricity with rooftop PV. In South Australia, the figure is one in four homes.

In the Middle East, Israel has installed the most solar PV to date. Its installed PV base grew 75 percent in 2013 to 420 megawatts. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates switched on a 13-megawatt project in October 2013 that is planned to expand to at least 100 megawatts and perhaps 10 times that size. By 2032, Saudi Arabia aims to have 16,000 megawatts of PV.

In Africa, where small off-grid PV systems have been the norm, South Africa dominates in PV capacity. At least three large projects with a combined 175 megawatts have been inaugurated in that country’s Northern Cape province since late 2013. The Chinese solar firm Hanergy plans to build a 400-megawatt park in Ghana. And Skypower FAS Energy, a Canadian-Saudi joint venture, signed agreements with Nigerian federal and state governments in May 2014 to install 3,000 megawatts of utility-scale PV there by 2019.

PV remains the most rapidly growing energy technology by a wide margin. Indeed, global PV installations for 2014 should reach at least 40,000 megawatts, expanding world PV capacity by another 30 percent. As concerns about climate change grow, solar PV has firmly established itself as an integral player in the transition from fossil fuels.


For a plan to stabilize the Earth’s climate, see “Time for Plan B.” Data and additional resources at

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Wind Power Fact Sheet

Wind power capacity is an indicator of building a sustainable economy because wind is poised to become the foundation of the new energy economy.

With total capacity exceeding 318,000 megawatts, wind farms generate carbon-free electricity in more than 85 countries. Twenty-four countries have at least 1,000 megawatts.

The wind power capacity installed worldwide would be enough to meet the residential electricity needs of the European Union’s 506 million people.

Wind is abundant, carbon-free and nondepletable. It uses no water, no fuel, and little land.

Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy only 1 percent of that area, leaving space for growing crops or grazing livestock.

Unlike coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, wind farms do not require water for cooling.

In China, wind-generated electricity surpassed generation from nuclear power plants for the first time in 2012. Wind’s advantage over nuclear increased dramatically in 2013.

In the United States, wind accounted for at least 12 percent of the electricity generated in nine states in 2013, including Iowa (27 percent) and South Dakota (26 percent).

Texas, long the leading oil-producing state, is now the U.S. wind power leader.

The European Union added more wind capacity in 2013 than it did natural gas, coal, or nuclear.

Denmark produced one third of its electricity from the wind in 2013, a higher share than any other country. In northern Germany, four states get at least half of their electricity from wind farms.

The United Kingdom hosts more than half of the world’s offshore wind generating capacity. Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and China round out the top five offshore wind countries.

Each of the world’s leading carbon emitters has enough wind potential to meet electricity needs.

Wind power is often highly competitive with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power in areas with strong wind resources. And costs continue to fall: In the United States, the average price of wind-generated electricity has dropped 40 percent since 2009.

(PDF version)


Data and additional resources available at

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Denmark, Portugal, and Spain Leading the World in Wind Power

By J. Matthew Roney

Denmark produced one third of its electricity from the wind in 2013. In no other country has wind’s share of annual electricity generation yet topped 30 percent. But the Danes are not stopping there—they are eyeing a goal of 50 percent wind by 2020, with most of the needed expansion coming from offshore wind farms. Recent experience shows that Denmark’s grid can accommodate this much wind power and more: wind-generated electricity exceeded 100 percent of demand the evening of November 3, 2013.

Wind Share of Electricity Generation in Leading Countries, 2013

In Portugal, wind farms produced nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity in 2013. The situation was similar in neighboring Spain, where wind power accounted for 21 percent of electricity output, just shy of nuclear power, the leading source at 22 percent.

More than 17 percent of Ireland’s power generation in 2013 came from wind farms. Over the course of the year, the wind share frequently went above 50 percent, peaking at 59 percent on September 16th, according to grid operator EirGrid.

And in both Germany and the United Kingdom, countries with a combined population of 145 million, wind contributed nearly 8 percent of electricity generation in 2013. Four states in northern Germany get half or more of their electricity from wind. As impressive as these figures are for Europe’s two largest economies, what is really astounding is that each country has enough potential wind generating capacity to be 100 percent wind-powered.

What’s more, so do the world’s other leading carbon emitters. This includes, of course, the United States, where wind farms currently supply 4 percent of national electricity. Iowa and South Dakota lead the way at the state level, each generating more than 25 percent of their electricity from wind as of 2013. And in China, wind power—despite accounting for less than 3 percent of electricity generation—recently overtook nuclear to become the country’s third largest power source after coal and hydropower. With a generation potential that is more than 10 times current demand, wind may one day become China’s leading electricity source.


For more information, see Earth Policy Institute’s latest Wind Indicator, at

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Bicycle Share Fact Sheet

The prevalence of bicycles in a community is an indicator of our ability to provide affordable transportation, lower traffic congestion, reduce air pollution, increase mobility, and provide exercise to the world’s growing population. Bike-sharing programs are one way to get cycles to the masses.

In early 2014, some 600 cities in 52 countries host advanced bike-sharing programs, with a combined fleet of more than 570,000 bicycles.

Spain leads the world with 132 separate bike-share programs. Italy has 104, and Germany, 43.

The world’s largest bike-sharing program is in Wuhan, China’s sixth largest city, with 9 million people and 90,000 shared bikes.

In 2013, China was home to 82 bike-sharing programs, with a whopping combined fleet of some 380,000 bicycles.

The United States hosts 36 modern bike-sharing programs. With a number of new programs in the works and planned expansions of existing programs, the U.S. fleet is set to nearly double to over 37,000 publicly shared bicycles by the end of 2014.

Since the Vélib’ system launched in Paris in 2007, the number of cyclists on the streets has risen 41 percent. Nearly 24,000 bicycles can be picked up at over 1,700 stations in the city and suburbs.

London’s Barclays Cycle Hire system launched in 2010 with 6,000 bikes and has grown beyond 9,000. New bike lanes and designated cycle tracks have helped ridership grow.

Bike-sharing cities are finding that promoting the bicycle as a transport option can lead to more mobility and safer streets for all.

Bike shares, lanes, and other bicycle-friendly infrastructure are a boon to local economies.

With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, there is tremendous potential for municipal governments and urban planners to increase bicycle use.

With annual memberships in most cities well below $100, bike sharing is far cheaper than the $7,800 average cost estimated by AAA to own a car and drive it 10,000 miles a year.

During the first year that people abandon regular driving to become a bike commuter, they can lose 10 pounds or more.


Data and additional resources available at
Research Contacts: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 x14 or jlarsen (at)
Emily E. Adams (202) 496-9290 x16 or eadams (at)

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The Downfall of the Plastic Bag: A Global Picture

By Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova

Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.

Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, it is a curse, allowing for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife, and sully vistas. Filled with additives that lack a safety record, plastics have been linked with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolizes the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.

Given the multitude of problems associated with plastic bags, many communities around the world have attempted to free themselves from their addictions by implementing bag bans or fees. The oldest existing bag tax is in Denmark. Passed in 1993, this regulation affected plastic bag makers who paid a tax based on the bag’s weight. Stores were allowed to pass the cost on to consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The initial effect of this system was an impressive 60 percent drop in plastic bag use.

One of the most well-known bag measures is Ireland’s national bag tax, adopted in 2002. It was the first to charge consumers directly, starting at a rate of 15 euro cents (20ȼ) per bag. Within five months of the measure’s introduction, bag usage fell by over 90 percent.  Litter was greatly reduced as well. Over the years, bag use started to creep up, however, so in 2007 the charge was increased to 22 euro cents, and in 2011 the law was amended with the aim of keeping annual bag use at or below 21 bags per person. Frank Convery of University College Dublin calls Ireland’s plastic bag levy “the most popular tax in Europe” and believes that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

Indeed, many communities looking at plastic bag reduction measures hope to emulate the Irish success. Other European countries where consumers pay for plastic shopping bags—either through law or voluntary initiatives—include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Throughout the European Union, member states will soon be required to take measures to reduce plastic bag use 80 percent by 2019.

International Plastic Bag Laws Map

(Click for a live map)

Reducing the amount of plastics in the marine environment has been a major driver of bag regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In a memo on its bag reduction proposal, the European Commission notes that “in the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic. Plastic bags have been found in stomachs of several endangered marine species, such as green turtles, loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles, black footed albatrosses, and harbour porpoises.” In sum, “at least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.” The desire to protect the whales that migrate off the coast of Tasmania led to Australia’s first local plastic bag ban in 2003. Now half of Australian states and territories ban plastic bags.

Beyond the seas, the reasons for taking action against plastic bags vary from malaria outbreaks associated with bags collecting water in Kenya to sewers clogged with plastic bags exacerbating flooding in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and the Philippines. Cattle choking on plastic bags gave impetus for bag regulations in Texas ranch country and in Indian communities concerned about the sacred cow. In the capital of Mauritania, an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths are from plastic bag ingestion; in the United Arab Emirates, the concern is for camels.

The world’s strictest anti-plastic bag implementation strategy may be in Rwanda. Since a ban went into effect in 2008, airline passengers arriving from outside the country have recounted being forced to surrender plastic bags on arrival. It is unclear, however, how successful the ban is at reducing overall bag use, particularly in less urban areas, because of an active black market for plastic bags. In South Africa, where plastic bags caught in bushes and trees had become so common that they were called the national flower, a ban on the very thin non-biodegradable bags that tear readily and easily blow away went into effect in 2003. Thicker bags are taxed. Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers. All told, at least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.

In China, where plastic bag pollution was widespread, a few cities and provinces tried to introduce policies to limit bag use in the 1990s, but poor enforcement led to limited success. Before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, a national law went into effect banning extra thin bags and requiring stores to charge a fee for thicker bags. The Chinese government reported that bag use has dropped by more than two thirds, although compliance appears to be spotty. A number of cities in Southeast Asia, the source of many of the world’s plastic bag exports, have come up with legislation to reduce bag use.

In the United States, 133 city- or county-wide anti-plastic bag regulations have been passed. Bag bans cover one of every three Californians and virtually all Hawaiians. Chicago’s city council voted for a bag ban in April 2014.  Dallas and Washington, D.C., are among the handful of jurisdictions that charge 5–10ȼ for each plastic or paper bag; in both cities, charges were instituted to reduce the number of bags in local rivers. In Canada, much of the anti-bag action is voluntary, with a number of retailers participating. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees. Liquor stores in Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have tossed out the plastic bag for good.

Latin America also hosts a number of initiatives to reduce plastic bag litter and waste, including bans in the Chilean cities of Pucón and Punta Arenas and in the states of Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina, to name a few. Carryout bags in a couple of Brazilian states are required to be biodegradable. São Paulo state banned free single-use plastic bags starting in January 2012, allowing heavy reusable or biodegradable bags to be sold for 10ȼ, but the measure was removed by an industry-supported court injunction, despite the backing of the supermarket trade association. Similarly, Mexico City banned plastic shopping bags in 2009, but, under pressure from plastics manufacturers, the measure was replaced before enforcement began with a recycling initiative—a common tactic used by industry groups around the world against stricter bans or fees.

Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence.

Additional information, including a timeline of the plastic bag and a collection of international plastic bag initiatives is available at

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Plastic Bag Bans Spreading in the United States

By Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova

Los Angeles rang in the 2014 New Year with a ban on the distribution of plastic bags at the checkout counter of big retailers, making it the largest of the 132 cities and counties around the United States with anti-plastic bag legislation. And a movement that gained momentum in California is going national. More than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans or fees. Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times. But this number will soon fall as more communities, including large cities like New York and Chicago, look for ways to reduce the plastic litter that blights landscapes and clogs up sewers and streams.

While now ubiquitous, the plastic bag has a relatively short history. Invented in Sweden in 1962, the single-use plastic shopping bag was first popularized by Mobil Oil in the 1970s in an attempt to increase its market for polyethylene, a fossil-fuel-derived compound. Many American customers disliked the plastic bag when it was introduced in 1976, disgusted by the checkout clerks having to lick their fingers when pulling the bags from the rack and infuriated when a bag full of groceries would break or spill over. But retailers continued to push for plastic because it was cheaper and took up less space than paper, and now a generation of people can hardly conceive of shopping without being offered a plastic bag at the checkout counter.

The popularity of plastic grocery bags stems from their light weight and their perceived low cost, but it is these very qualities that make them unpleasant, difficult, and expensive to manage. Over one third of all plastic production is for packaging, designed for short-term use. Plastic bags are made from natural gas or petroleum that formed over millions of years, yet they are often used for mere minutes before being discarded to make their way to a dump or incinerator—if they don’t blow away and end up as litter first. The amount of energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car for a mile.

In landfills and waterways, plastic is persistent, lasting for hundreds of years, breaking into smaller pieces and leaching out chemical components as it ages, but never fully disappearing. Animals that confuse plastic bags with food can end up entangled, injured, or dead. Recent studies have shown that plastic from discarded bags actually soaks up additional pollutants like pesticides and industrial waste that are in the ocean and delivers them in large doses to sea life. The harmful substances then can move up the food chain to the food people eat. Plastics and the various additives that they contain have been tied to a number of human health concerns, including disruption of the endocrine and reproductive systems, infertility, and a possible link to some cancers.

Graph on Population Under Plastic Bag Bans and Charges in the United States, 2007-2014

California—with its long coastline and abundant beaches where plastic trash is all too common—has been the epicenter of the U.S. movement against plastic bags. San Francisco was the first American city to regulate their use, starting with a ban on non-compostable plastic bags from large supermarkets and chain pharmacies in 2007. As part of its overall strategy to reach “zero waste” by 2020 (the city now diverts 80 percent of its trash to recyclers or composters instead of landfills), it extended the plastic bag ban to other stores and restaurants in 2012 and 2013. Recipients of recycled paper or compostable bags are charged at least 10ȼ, but—as is common in cities with plastic bag bans—bags for produce or other bulk items are still allowed at no cost. San Francisco also is one of a number of Californian cities banning the use of polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) food containers, and it has gone a step further against disposable plastic packaging by banning sales of water in plastic bottles in city property.

All told, plastic bag bans cover one-third of California’s population. Plastic bag purchases by retailers have reportedly fallen from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012, and bag producers and plastics manufacturers have taken note. Most of the ordinances have faced lawsuits from plastics industry groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Even though the laws have largely held up in the courts, the threat of legal action has deterred additional communities from taking action and delayed the process for others.

Ironically, were it not for the intervention of the plastics industry in the first place, California would likely have far fewer outright plastic bag bans. Instead, more communities might have opted for charging a fee per bag, but this option was prohibited as part of industry-supported state-wide legislation in 2006 requiring Californian grocery stores to institute plastic bag recycling programs. Since a first attempt in 2010, California has come close to introducing a statewide ban on plastic bags, but well-funded industry lobbyists have gotten in the way. A new bill will likely go up for a vote in 2014 with the support of the California Grocers Association as well as state senators who had opposed an earlier iteration.

Seattle’s story is similar. In 2008 the city council passed legislation requiring groceries, convenience stores, and pharmacies to charge 20ȼ for each one-time-use bag handed out at the cash register. A $1.4 million campaign headed by the ACC stopped the measure via a ballot initiative before it went into effect, and voters rejected the ordinance in August 2009. But the city did not give up. In 2012 it banned plastic bags and added a 5ȼ fee for paper bags. Attempts to gather signatures to repeal this have been unsuccessful. Eleven other Washington jurisdictions have also banned plastic bags, including the state capital, Olympia. (See database of U.S. plastic bag initiatives and a timeline history.)

U.S. Plastic Bag Laws Map

(Click for a live map)

A number of state governments have entertained proposals for anti-plastic bag legislation, but not one has successfully applied a statewide charge or banned the bags. Hawaii has a virtual state prohibition, as its four populated counties have gotten rid of plastic bags at grocery checkouts, with the last one beginning enforcement in July 2015. Florida, another state renowned for its beaches, legally preempts cities from enacting anti-bag legislation. The latest attempt to remove this barrier was scrapped in April 2014, although state lawmakers say they will revisit the proposal later in the year.

Opposition to plastic bags has emerged in Texas, despite the state accounting for 44 percent of the U.S. plastics market and serving as the home to several important bag manufacturers, including Superbag, one of America’s largest. Eight cities and towns in the state have active plastic bag bans, and others, like San Antonio, have considered jumping on the bandwagon. Austin banned plastic bags in 2013, hoping to reduce the more than $2,300 it was spending each day to deal with plastic bag trash and litter. The smaller cities of Fort Stockton and Kermit banned plastic bags in 2011 and 2013, respectively, after ranchers complained that cattle had died from ingesting them. Plastic bags have also been known to contaminate cotton fields, getting caught up in balers and harming the quality of the final product. Plastic pollution in the Trinity River Basin, which provides water to over half of all Texans, was a compelling reason for Dallas to pass a 5ȼ fee on plastic bags that will go into effect in 2015.

Washington, D.C., was the first U.S. city to require food and alcohol retailers to charge customers 5ȼ for each plastic or paper bag. Part of the revenue from this goes to the stores to help them with the costs of implementation, and part is designated for cleanup of the Anacostia River. Most D.C. shoppers now routinely bring their own reusable bags on outings; one survey found that 80 percent of consumers were using fewer bags and that over 90 percent of businesses viewed the law positively or neutrally.

Montgomery County in Maryland followed Washington’s example and passed a 5ȼ charge for bags in 2011. A recent study that compared shoppers in this county with those in neighboring Prince George’s County, where anti-bag legislation has not gone through, found that reusable bags were seven times more popular in Montgomery County stores. When bags became a product rather than a freebie, shoppers thought about whether the product was worth the extra nickel and quickly got into the habit of bringing their own bags.

One strategy of the plastics industry—concerned about declining demand for its products—is an attempt to change public perception of plastic bags by promoting recycling. Recycling, however, is also not a good long-term solution. The vast majority of plastic bags—97 percent or more in some locales—never make it that far. Even when users have good intentions, bags blow out of outdoor collection bins at grocery stores or off of recycling trucks. The bags that reach recycling facilities are the bane of the programs: when mixed in with other recyclables they jam and damage sorting machines, which are very costly to repair. In San Jose, California, where fewer than 4 percent of plastic bags are recycled, repairs to bag-jammed equipment cost the city about $1 million a year before the plastic bag ban went into effect in 2012.

Proposed plastic bag restrictions have been shelved in a number of jurisdictions, including New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, in favor of bag recycling programs. New York City may, however, move ahead with a bill proposed in March 2014 to place a city-wide 10ȼ fee on single-use bags. Chicago is weighing a plastic bag ban.

In their less than 60 years of existence, plastic bags have had far-reaching effects. Enforcing legislation to limit their use challenges the throwaway consumerism that has become pervasive in a world of artificially cheap energy. As U.S. natural gas production has surged and prices have fallen, the plastics industry is looking to ramp up domestic production. Yet using this fossil fuel endowment to make something so short-lived, which can blow away at the slightest breeze and pollutes indefinitely, is illogical—particularly when there is a ready alternative: the reusable bag.

A subsequent Earth Policy Institute release will cover international action on plastic bags. Additional information, including a timeline and table on selected plastic bag regulations in the United States, is available at

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