4 years late, rules approved to enable fines for free plastic bag giveaways

Plastic Bag Law, passed in March 2016, included fine scale, but could not be implemented until accompanying regulations were approved

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

People shop for groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi'in, on September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People shop for groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi'in, on September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

More than four years after the passing of a law requiring large retail stores to charge for single-use plastic bags, a Knesset committee on Tuesday finally approved the regulations that enable inspectors to fine those breaking the rules.

The Plastic Bag Law, passed in March 2016 and implemented from January 1, 2017, requires customers buying in large supermarkets to pay 10 agorot (roughly three cents) for each plastic bag they take at the cashier’s counter.

The law contains a scale of fines for different violations, which can reach NIS 20,000 ($5,900) for stores and double that for big chains.

But the fines could not be levied until accompanying regulations were passed detailing the circumstances under which fines could be discounted.

People with multi-use shopping bags full of groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi’in in central Israel, September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The result was that up until now, the Environmental Protection Ministry was able to do little more than carry out spot checks and audit financial documents, ordering stores to pay the difference if there was an unexplained gap between the number of bags they purchased and the number they sold to customers.

With Tuesday’s passage of the regulations by the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, the ministry will now be able to fine stores — including internet ones — that distribute bags with a width of 20-50 microns without charging, or issue receipts that do not separately show the bag charge. (One micron is one-millionth of a meter or one twenty-five thousandth of an inch). Discounts on fines will be given in some cases. For example, if the fine exceeds five percent of the store’s turnover, it will be reduced so as not to cause the store to go bust.

Ultra Orthodox Jews outside a supermarket in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 25, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Plastic Bag Law also obliged the Environmental Protection Ministry to set targets for plastic bag reductions within a year. But as the same Knesset committee heard at a different session last month, while the professionals finished preparing draft targets in 2018, they are still waiting for them to enter the ministry’s work schedule and list of priorities.

Ministry official Noa Spitzer-Mizrahi told the committee that large food retailers purchased two billion plastic bags for free distribution in 2016, before the law was passed.

After it was implemented, that number dropped dramatically to 380 million, but it then rose in 2018 to 430 million and in 2019 to 454 million. Up to June 30 this year, retailers had already bought 237 million bags. The figures were not cross-referenced with population growth.

The committee was told that some of the large retailers have tried to bypass the law, distributing bags that are thicker than 50 microns, or thick paper bags which are also environmentally questionable, or distributing multi-use bags in such great numbers that consumers throw most of them away for lack of storage space. In such cases, the money retailers pay to buy bags is rolled onto the consumer in higher prices for other products.

Out of the NIS 127 ($37.5) million transferred to the ministry’s Clean Fund from the bag tax, just NIS 46 ($13.5) million has been spent so far — NIS 20 ($6) million on a campaign to encourage multi-use shopping bags and a further NIS 26 ($7.7) million on unrelated programs to clean up beaches.

A young turtle tangled up in a green plastic ‘jute’ bag, photographed at the Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. (YouTube/Israel Nature and Parks Authority screenshot)

Environmental groups want an extension of the law to oblige all retailers to charge for single-use plastic bags. The Plastic Bag Manufacturers and Marketers Forum of the Association of Chambers of Commerce are opposed.

Some 100,000 marine animals around the world die every year from ingesting plastic bags. In Israel, it is becoming more common for sea creatures such as turtles to be spotted tangled up in plastic. Terrestrial animals such as ibex are also endangered, by eating the bags.

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