Dublin, Ireland — Ireland slapped a 13-cent-per-bag surcharge on plastic shopping bags Monday, a measure lauded by environmentalists but decried as a rip-off by many struggling Dublin residents.
"They'll be taxing my underpants next because they're not white enough," grumbled Brendan Quinn, departing the Moore Street market with a bagful of eggs and sausages.
The tax seeks to address one facet of Ireland's surprisingly big problem with garbage. In recent months the government's Environmental Protection Agency has cracked down on a network of illegal dumps, some containing dangerous medical waste and threatening local groundwater.
But government efforts to control waste have been thwarted on most fronts.
Grass-roots opposition is growing in Dublin, Cork and other cities to a new garbage-collection charge, and protest groups have successfully blocked the development of a new national incinerator at several potential sites.
A new national vehicle test has spurred motorists to abandon their old cars in fields and parking lots rather than pay a fee to have them scrapped. Fledgling efforts to promote recycling took a blow when the country's main glass recycling plant closed down last week.
Against that backdrop, throwaway bags might seen a minor matter. But multitudes of plastic sacks, billowing in the breeze on barbed-wire fences and hedgerows, are a particular blight on the countryside.
An estimated 1.2 billion bags are handed out at Irish cash registers each year. In a country of less than 3.8 million, that's about 325 bags per person.
"We need to end our addiction to these wasteful bags, which we use for minutes but which survive for decades," said Environment Minister Noel Dempsey, who expects the public to turn to tougher, long-term bags.
The two biggest supermarkets, Tesco and Dunnes Stores, are already selling a range of semi-permanent shopping bags, ranging in cost from 26 cents to $1.10. They expect customers to be using 40-50 percent fewer disposable bags within months.
Some shoppers in Dublin said Monday they won't mind changing.
"It's just a question of getting in the habit of bringing your own, not being lazy," said Grace Fagan, 40. "People always complain about the cheap bags anyway that they hurt your hands, and then they break when you're carrying them up the stairs. I for one won't miss them."
But many shoppers were taken aback when they found the extra charge on their receipt.
"What's the meaning of this?" asked Ann Wilson, buying a few magazines at the Easons bookshop.
But it had the intended effect, as she immediately took her magazines out of the bag and handed it back for a refund.
Aine O'Connell, 71, didn't know what the fuss was all about. She never used plastic bags, preferring to stick to her own two-wheeled trolley an old-fashioned device that may be about to make a comeback.
"I've never been a trendsetter before," she said, stuffing a cabbage and head of cauliflower in the battered, blue leather conveyance, which she says she's used "longer than I care to remember."