The first phase of Panama’s plastic bag ban went into effect on Saturday, which means that supermarkets, retailers, and pharmacies will have to provide customers with sustainable alternatives during the checkout process going forward.
The full law, which completely bans the commercial distribution of bags, will go into effect in early 2020.
Panama became the first country in Central America to ban plastic bags when the legislature voted on the measure in 2018. As with other countries, the law included a grace period that allowed businesses to phase out plastic bags and find suitable alternatives.
During this transition period, the government began an educational campaign, featuring billboards and other advertisements, to let people know the environmental impact of plastic bags and that they would soon be illegal. The government also worked with businesses to find alternatives.
While most commercial stores were given 18 months to adjust, wholesalers were given 24 months. Some uses for plastic bags will still be allowed, including the wrapping of raw foods, but the new law will drastically reduce the amount of bags used in the country annually, Reuters reports.
Businesses found in violation of the law will be fined and the money raised will be used to fund improved recycling systems.
Read More: The Long, Strange Journey of a Plastic Bag
Ultimately, legislators hope that plastic consumption will fall by 20% in the years ahead, according to the Audubon Society.
Plastic bags may soon be hard to find around the world.
In recent years, 69 countries have proposed bans on the single-use items and 32 countries impose a charge on bags to reduce their use. The prevalence of plastic bag bans tripled between 2010 and 2019.
Plastic bags, along with styrofoam, are often the first plastic items restricted by governments.
These ubiquitous fast food and grocery containers are targeted for a few reasons.
First, single-use plastic bags are largely unnecessary — environmentally friendly alternatives are just as effective at transporting goods. Next, they’re extremely hard to recycle. In the US, just 5% of the 380 billion plastic bags used annually get recycled.
Read More: 5 Plastic Alternatives Doing More Harm Than Good — and What to Use Instead
Finally, plastic bags are harmful to the environment. They take a long time to break down and regularly contaminate land and water habitats, where they accidentally get consumed by animals, causing grave harm. A sea turtle, for example, becomes 14% more likely to die after eating a piece of plastic.
As the fight against plastic pollution gains momentum, more investments are being made in sustainable alternatives and zero-waste movements are gaining ground.
Some of the world’s leading retailers are pursuing circular models of production in which packages are collected and repurposed. Major grocery stores are eliminating the excess plastic on their shelves. And plastic alternatives like aluminum, glass, and paper are becoming more in demand.