Like cigarettes, plastic shopping bags have gone in recent years from a nuisance that was tolerated to something that is despised by a lot of people. This has led some municipalities to institute bans and restrictions on plastic shopping bags.
For example, in 2016, the New York City Council passed a .05 per bag fee for plastic bags handed out at most shops in the city. Two weeks before that, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a bill that would ban bags from being dispensed at all in many businesses. There also would be a 10 cent fee for every recycled paper bag or reusable shopping bag. The Massachusetts law as of this writing had not become law yet, but it is another sign that the plastic bag industry is losing on the policy front.
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, 32 cities and towns have passed their own bans on plastic bags, or fees. Also, 88 municipalities in California have passed bans, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. California was the first state in 2014 to impose an entire ban on plastic bags. The bill also mandated a .10 minimum fee on using plastic or paper bags.
Hawaii has a ban on all plastic bags in grocery stores, and on paper bags that have less than 40% recycled products.
Downsides of Plastic Bags Lead to Bans
There is little doubt that plastic bags have a negative impact upon the environment. Consider the negatives:
- Plastic bags clog up landfills and water drainage systems
- Get stuck in trees
- Hurt animals and fish
- Contaminate bodies of water
- Many recycling programs do not handle plastic bags well and some may not allow them to be recycled
According to the New Yorker in 2014, plastic grocery bags were the #7 most common item that was found in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, just behind cigarette butts, bottle caps and plastic straws. The New York City Sanitation Department also reported that it collects 1700 tons of plastic bags every week and most dispose of $12.5 million worth every year.
But bag bans have been found to work well somewhat to stop the problem. In San Jose, CA, a total ban on plastic bans caused an 89% drop in bags being found in storm drains. Fees also have an impact, although this is smaller. In Washington DC, the government states that the .05 per bag fee led to 60% less of the bags being used.
Some of the countries around the world that have introduced a ban or a surcharge on plastic bags include:
- US: As of 2013, there are 17 states and 98 cities and counties that have a ban in place. As of 2014, the number grew to 20 states and 132 cities. This meant 20 million Americans lived in a place with a bag ban
- Brazil: there has been a total ban on plastic bags since 2007
- Denmark: In 2003, the country started a tax on retailers that use plastic bags. It is thought this reduced use of all throwaway bags by 66%
- Ireland: there is a .15 tax per bag as of 2002, and 90% of consumers switched to reusable bags right away
- Wales: Since 2011, the country has been charging .05 for every bag used, including paper and plastic
- Italy: In 2011, the country banned using any plastic bags that are made from biodegradable products
- Scotland: There is a national per bag charge of .05 on bags that are used in a store or online
- Germany: All stores that use plastic bags must pay a recycling tax
What About Paper?
It is true that fewer plastic bags being used across the country with various bans and fee programs is a good thing. But it also is worth looking at what will replace plastic bags and what the impact is upon the environment. People still need some types of bags to bring home their items, and for many of them, the choice will be paper bags.
This has caused somewhat of a split in the ban plastic bags movement. In Massachusetts, there is an attempt by the state legislature to reduce the use of both plastic and paper bags. But the law favors paper. In New York City, all single-use bags are treated the same – both paper and plastic. Even then, some experts question if single-use bags are always worse than reusable bags.
Studies of the environmental impact of bags over their entire life cycle have come to various conclusions. Some of the studies are funded by plastic industry groups, such as the American Progressive Bag Alliance. You could wonder in that case if it that study is going to come to conclusions that are to be trusted.
Even studies on the subject that have the best intentions will depend upon a variety of assumptions. For instance, how many plastic bags are replaced when a single, cotton reusable bag is bought? If a plastic bag that is reused in the home several times, does that reduce its footprint upon the environment by removing the need for another plastic bag?
Climate Change Questions
For people who are largely concerned about energy use and climate change, things get even cloudier when analyzing the impact of various types of bags. One of the biggest studies on the subject was published in 2007 by a state government agency in Australia. It actually found that paper bags have a bigger impact on the environment than plastic. This is because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.
People naturally assume that paper bags are better because they are biodegradable, and that is true. But it is not necessarily true for climate change. The reasons for the larger are various, but it often comes down to the fact that paper bags have a greater thickness than plastic. The carbon footprint of an object is largely related to its mass. Bags take up more space, so more energy is required to produce and move them around.
Reusable Bags and Their Impact
There is no question that reusable shopping bags are environmentally friendly and reduce the pollution of plastic bags first and foremost. When cities and towns pass plastic bag bans, they strongly encourage the use of reusable shopping bags. But it is only fair to note that cotton canvas tote bags have an environmental impact, too. It is estimated that 2.5% of the cropland on Earth is planted with cotton, but it is 25% of the market for insecticides and 11% for pesticides.
Also, a pound of cotton needs 5000 gallons of water on average for its growth. This is a lot more than all vegetables and most types of meat. Cotton also is not easily recycled.
Still, many environmental experts say the best option is reusable grocery bags for their gentle environmental impact. There are reusable bags made from other materials, such as hemp, which are more environmentally friendly.
- Banning Plastic Bags. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/06/banning-plastic-bags-great-world-right-not-fast/
- Bans and Taxes on Plastic Bags. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bigfatbags.co.uk/bans-taxes-charges-plastic-bags/