On Wednesday, Chile's senate has passed a bill that will prohibit the use of plastic bags in stores, with a vote in their House of Representatives overwhelmingly in favor of the measure, with 134 supporting the bill and one abstention. According to The Independent, the new law would give large retailers one year to phase out the use of plastic bags, and smaller businesses two years.

This makes Chile the first country in the Americas to ban plastic bags, and officially recognize how important such a ban would be in the effort to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic waste.

Image: UN

At first, the measure was only meant to ban plastic bags in Patagonia, but it was approved by both the senate and president for the entire country. The Association of Plastic Industries registered Chile as using 3,400 million plastic bags per year, or 200 per person.

They added the astonishing statistic that it takes only a minute to produce a single plastic bag, and each one is used, on average, for fifteen-to-thirty-minutes. They then each take approximately 400 years to degrade.

Telesur reports that the Minister of the Environment, Marcela Cubillos, said the country needs a larger cultural change for people to start replacing plastic with reusable bags.

The ministry has launched a website, chaobolsasplasticas.cl, to help educate citizens about the new law and to recognize the members of Congress who have been working towards the measure for the last decade. A number of coastal communities in Chile had already adopted the ban.

"The site contains the answers to citizens' questions about the implementation of the law if approved, and a map with the 58 communes of the country that already have a regulation on plastic bags," says a spokesperson.

The idea was first floated in September by president Michelle Bachelet, while she addressed the United Nations General Assembly and stated, “We are going to present a bill that will ban the usage of plastic bags in coastal cities within the next 12 months."

“We are at a key turning point in humanity’s history,” she said, adding the country need to take responsibility for their part in climate change and “dare to change our production models.”

The country's current president, Sebastián Piñera, then expanded it to the entire country after assuming his position.

“We have taken a fundamental step to take better care of Chile and the planet. Today we are more prepared to leave a better planet to our children, grandchildren and the generations to come,” he wrote on Twitter, according to the Independent.