Faced With 3-cent Charge, Israelis Abandon Plastic Shopping Bags

After a slow start, new law causes usage to plummet at supermarkets.

Israelis wrapping their shopping in plastic bags at a Shufersal supermarket. Picture shows a man in a white shirt with three bags, one clearly containing fresh produce and one a box of breakfast cereal. The third bag appears to have been doubled, presumably for strength. A woman standing next to him in line, wearing a brownish-greenish shirt and jeans, is holding a plastic bag with unclear content.
Israelis wrapping their shopping in plastic bags at a Super-Sol supermarket. Dan Keinan

After a hesitant start, Israeli shoppers are responding to the new mandatory charge for plastic bags provided by supermarkets and have become so enamored of the multiuse bags now being offered that there’s already a shortage.

At the Victory chain of supermarkets, use of plastic bags has plunged 85% since the law went into effect on January 1, and at Rami Levy use is down 80%. At the AM:PM chain of downtown groceries, plastic bag usage has fallen 60%.

“Supersol customers use about 500 million bags a year and right now we estimate usage is down more than 50%,” said David Laron, vice president for operations and supply chain at the retailer, Israel’s biggest supermarket chain.

“There’s been a sea change in behavior. We’re seeing customers coming in with their own plastic bags and knapsacks. There’s a financial element here, even though the charge is just 10 agorot [less than 3 cents] a bag.”

The law requiring big retail chains to charge for the ubiquitous plastic bags aims to cut down on their use and help save the environment from a deluge of used bags that clog waterways and collect in tree branches. Critics, however, say the 10-agorot charge was not enough to deter people from buying them.

An informal survey of shoppers by TheMarker just after the law went into effect seemed to show the critics were right. But Rami Levy, the owner and founder of the eponymous supermarket chain, said there has been a rapid change in consumer attitudes in less than two weeks.

“When the bags were free, people paid no attention to them and would put a single item in each bag,” he said. “Today, because they have to pay for them and it’s being talked about in the media, awareness has grown a lot and so have environmental considerations. People are putting several items in each bag and bringing baskets from home.”

To help smooth the way into the new regime, the law requires the big retail chains to offer multiuse bags for free on purchases over 100 shekels until January 17. The Environmental Protection Ministry even offered a subsidy.

But take-up of the multiuse bags has been so unexpectedly strong that there’s a shortage, say retailers. At AM:PM, shoppers received 9,400 of the bags since January 1, compared with just 425 in the first 10 days of December. Rami Levy said it expected to distribute 1.5 million bags by the end of the month and promised the shortage customers encountered in the first days would soon be over.

Laron said Supersol was offering coupons to customers who couldn’t get the bags on their shopping trip entitling to two bags for every one they didn’t get the next time they came.

The law initially doesn’t apply for groceries or open-air markets, nor is it enforced for purchases of fresh produce.