PARIS - Scapegoat or environmental calamity? In three decades the plastic bag, a technological marvel capable of supporting two thousand times its own weight, has become a symbol of the thoughtlessness – and indeed an ecological footprint – of our consumerism.

In an attempt to rid our landscapes and oceans of this scourge, Mauritania and Mali, following in the path of other countries, have made plastic bags illegal as of Jan. 1, 2013.

In Oct. 2012, Haiti banned plastic bags and polystyrene packaging nationwide, in order to protect, said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, the island’s coast and mangroves which risked being asphyxiated by the detritus.

Further up north, the Canadian city of Toronto was also intent on banning the bags but changed its mind in late November out of fear of lawsuits by the plastics industry and merchants’ associations. Meanwhile, Concord, Massachusetts prohibited the sale of small plastic water bottles as of Jan. 1 of this year.

Measures banning – or taxing – shopping bags and other single-use bags are multiplying around the world. Denmark pioneered a tax in 1994. In 2002, Bangladesh banned all plastic bags. The bags were suspected of causing major floods in Dacca by blocking water evacuation channels. The same year Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax per shopping bag that resulted in a 90% decrease in demand.

By the early 2000s, production of plastic bags around the world had reached between 500 and 1,000 billion units. Their light weight means not only that they count for relatively little in terms of global plastics production but that they also are often not disposed of and collected like other garbage. In nature, they can take up to 400 years before they can start to break down. The oceans are stuffed with them, and that includes the stomachs of marine mammals.

"Single use plastic bags should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere," Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said in 2009.

Opponents of prohibition measures say that they are not an effective response to economic or environmental considerations. "Unfortunately, the political symbolism of banning the bags is powerful," Todd Myers, director of the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment wrote in the Wall Street Journal in October.

Recycling, not banning

Yet the endless forests of plastic bags clinging to trees, bushes and fences that today surround most agglomerations in developing countries are very real.

But in Togo, where the bags have been banned since the beginning of 2011, "nothing has changed," according to several observers. "These prohibition measures are often just smoke and mirrors because they’re never implemented," says Michel Loubry, who represents PlasticsEurope, the trade association that represents the interests of the plastics manufacturing industry in Western Europe. "We would do better by starting to help these countries get equipped with waste collection and treatment systems," he adds.

French NGO Gevalor is exploring an alternative to prohibiting bags – recycling them. In Madagascar, their project for the semi-industrial production of paving stones made from recycled plastic bags and sand is almost ready for commercialization. In Kenya, UNEP is helping the city of Nairobi develop the infrastructure needed for the collection and recycling of plastic bags and the parallel introduction of a tax. The recycling networks in developing countries are too artisanal to meet environmental demands.

While the European Union is still hesitant about banning or taxing plastic bags, Italy banned them in 2011. France has decided to tax single use shopping bags that are not biodegradable starting Jan. 1, 2014. The tax is expected to be about six euro cents.

The number of such bags used in France has decreased from 15 billion units in 2003 to around 800 million in 2010. The fact that major retail chains no longer hand out the bags free has played a large role in this. The retailers saw where their interest lay and now sell reusable bags.

The progressive disappearance of the free plastic shopping bag, often reused in private households as a garbage bag, has led to an increase in sales of garbage bags – which require a lot more plastic to make than the flimsy little single use bags.