As New Law Comes Into Effect, Israelis Still Cling to Their Plastic Bags

Law mandating a 3-cent fee for shopping bags went into force on Sunday, but with little effect on the first day.

A shopper at the Super-Sol Deal store in Holon, January 1, 2017.
David Bachar

“You see, I brought a bag from home so I don’t need to pay for a new one,” beamed Shmuel Shadmi, shopping at his local Super-Sol Deal store in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon on Sunday – the first day Israel’s new “bag law” came into effect.

Shadmi’s attitude toward paying the now mandatory 10-agorot (less than 3-cent) fee for the plastic bags offered by supermarkets and other merchants, and scooped up with abandon by shoppers, is just what the law’s backers are counting on to wean Israelis off their bag habit.

Unfortunately, an informal survey by TheMarker found that Shadmi was in a minority.

“For 10 agorot there’s no chance I’m going to bring a bag from home,” said Ido, a shopper at a Tel Aviv branch of the AM:PM grocery chain, who asked for his surname not to be published.

A checkout woman at the store, Marina, said that, several hours after the law went into effect, Ido was more typical of shoppers than Shmuel. “It hasn’t stopped a single customer from taking a bag,” she said. “I would say 80% are paying for bags and the rest are bringing bags from home. They take however many they need – three or four – and the cost doesn’t bother them,” she added.

The law aims to get Israelis reusing shopping bags, some 1.6 billion of which are given away by the big retail chains alone. Many of them are recycled at home for packing school lunches or lining waste baskets, but far too many end up littering parks and highways, attaching themselves to trees or cluttering streams and rivers.

Even before the law went into effect, supermarkets offered reusable bags at a price. On Sunday, though, there was little sign of shoppers opting to use them.

“If you had to pay 50 agorot for a bag, maybe people would think twice. Whoever came up with the law should have fixed a higher fee,” said Amira Rajuan, another shopper at Super-Sol Deal in Holon.

Clerks have been instructed on how to bring customers up to speed on the new law. And in order to coax shoppers to get into the habit of using reusable bags, the Environmental Protection Ministry is subsidizing their cost for the first month, so that supermarket can offer them for free with purchases of 100 shekels or more.

Environmentalists who backed the law in principle cautioned before it went into effect that it wouldn’t work. But as faulty as it is, Nehama Ronen, chairwoman of ELA – a nonprofit that recycles beverage containers – said Sunday that it’s a step toward improving Israel’s environmental quality.

“If you look at the cost of a bag relative to the average shopping bill of the Israeli consumer, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she said, adding, “The consumer doesn’t feel it in his pocket.

“It will take years to change habits and it requires real work,” she said. “In Europe, for example, some countries don’t allow stores to offer the bags at all, and in others they charge half a euro [53 cents].”