Chile’s Plastics Industry Seeks to Avert Potential Bag Ban

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By Tom Azzopardi

The plastics industry, fearing an expected proposal by the Chilean government to ban the sale of plastic bags would cut sharply into their business, hope to convince lawmakers instead to require greater recycling of the bags.

The Chilean government will send legislation to Congress that would ban the sale of plastic bags in municipalities along the country’s 6,400-kilometer coastline—part of the country’s bid to sharply reduce the amount of plastic entering the Pacific Ocean, President Michelle Bachelet said at the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations Sept. 20.

Chile consumes more than 3.4 billion plastic bags annually, of which 97 percent end up in a landfill, are illegally dumped, or find their way into the oceans, according to the Environment Ministry.

“We will. . .become the first country in the Americas to implement a law of this type and we call on other countries to assume this responsibility,” Bachelet told delegates in New York. Bachelete said she hopes legislation could be passed and implemented with the next 12 months.

However, Nicolas Bar, president of the plastics industry association ASSIPLA, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 25 that companies would prefer that the bags be included in Chile’s recycling law—the Law on Extended Producer Responsibility (Law 20,920)— that came into effect last year.

“It makes no sense to create a new law to ban plastic bags when we already have agreed on a new legal framework,” Bar said.

Roberto Bessalle of Plásticos Bessalle, which distributes plastic bags throughout southern Chile, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 26 that a ban in coastal areas would reduce his company’s sales by about 25 percent.

“This is going to have a drastic effect on our business. . .We shall have to lay off workers,” said Bessalle, adding that coastal districts account for about a third of his market.

Steps to Regulate

So far, about 50 of Chile’s 345 municipal districts already have taken steps to regulate plastic bags.

These range from banning shops from providing plastic bags, limiting the number each customer can receive, or encouraging stores to switch to bags made from recycled materials.

A municipal ordinance in Concepción, Chile’s second largest city and the hometown of Plásticos Bessalle, limits shops from providing more than three bags per person.

“But this has not had a great impact as we concentrate on small businesses, not large supermarkets,” Bessalle said.

The company has experimented with biodegradable bags made of starch “but people don’t buy them because they are more expensive.” Rather than an outright ban, he said customers should be forced to pay for the bags which would limit demand.

First Recycling Law

Chile’s new recycling law aims to reduce the amount of material going to landfills by setting targets for recycling and encouraging city halls and businesses to collaborate in the gathering, sorting, and treatment of waste. Chile currently only recycles 10 percent of its household waste, a level the government aims to lift to 30 percent within five years.

As passed, the legislation currently applies to six priority products—batteries, car batteries, electronic devices, lubricants, package wrapping, and tires. Environment Minister Marcelo Mena has said the government plans to publish regulations, including annual recycling targets, for packaging and wrapping, car batteries, lubricants, and tires by the end of this year.

Bar said he had urged the government to include plastic bags as a subcategory under packaging and wrapping. Banning plastic bags outright might have undesired results such as requiring people to buy more plastic bags to dispose of waste or causing sanitation problems as trash is dumped unwrapped. A survey by market research firm Adimark GfK found that 94 percent of households in Chile use plastic bags to dispose of trash.

Alternatively, applying the ERP law to plastic bags would encourage businesses to reduce the number of plastic bags they use and for more of those bags to be made from recycled plastic, he said.

Bachelet said the proposal was in line with the greater efforts Chile is taking to protect its oceans.

Through the creation of a protected marine area around Easter Island, approved by islanders last month, and a Marine Park around the Desventuradas Islands, around half of Chile’s Exclusive Economic Zone will have protected status, Bachelet said.

Approval of a legislative proposal could be affected by the November election of a new government, which would take office March 2018.

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