photo by cocoparisienne from Pixabay
Palisades Hudson staff members in Stamford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon are among the growing number of Americans losing access to a former staple of everyday life: the single-use plastic shopping bag.
My colleagues and I here in Atlanta may soon face similar limitations, as Fulton County is considering banning many single-use plastics, including shopping bags. And our lawmakers are not alone. According to NPR, more than 240 cities and counties in the U.S. have now banned grocery-style plastic bags. New York recently joined California in instituting statewide bans. Hawaii also has a de facto statewide ban, as every county has individually banned nonbiodegrable shopping bags. A variety of state legislatures introduced similar bills in 2019. Besides bans, certain municipalities – including Washington, D.C. – have instituted fees on single-use plastic bags. Retailers generally pass these fees on to consumers who request plastic shopping bags, rather than bringing their own. Worldwide, 127 countries have instituted either bans or taxes.
Proponents of plastic bag bans often point out that the bags, like all plastic products, are not biodegradable. Products intended to be used temporarily stick around for centuries. Plastic bags can harm wildlife in the short term by choking or suffocating them, and in the long term by releasing toxins into the surrounding soil or water. Opponents also cite the fossil fuel burden involved in manufacturing the bags. Viewed in these terms, banning plastic bags should be a simple win.
The reality of such plastic bag bans is more complicated, as critics have stepped forward to observe. While bans are well-intentioned, they have unintended consequences that could make them a net negative for the environment.
Rebecca Taylor, an economist at the University of Sydney, published a study of bans on plastic carryout bags in various California cities before the statewide ban took effect in late 2016. Taylor found that many consumers had been reusing these bags. After they were banned, trash bag sales increased – in some cases significantly – to offset the change. Sales of smaller trash bags spiked 120%, and medium-size plastic trash bags increased 60%. Small to medium garbage bags are likely replacing carryout bags for uses such as lining small waste bins or cleaning up after dogs on leashes. Trash bags are thicker than shopping bags, which means more plastic. Taylor found that about 30% of plastic eliminated by the shopping bag ban came back in the form of expanded garbage bag sales.
Taylor also found that customers switching to paper generated about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year. Paper, unlike plastic, is biodegradable. But the environmental impact is not necessarily less. It takes much more energy to manufacture and transport paper shopping bags than their plastic counterparts. They are also less durable, which means shoppers are less likely to reuse them. And reusable cloth bag boosters should not feel too smug, either. The government of the United Kingdom found in a 2011 study that shoppers need to reuse a cotton bag 131 times to drop its carbon footprint below that of a single-use plastic bag.
Banning plastic products can have serious downsides unrelated to the environment, too. Researchers at the University of Arizona and California’s Loma Linda University found that reusable grocery bags often harbored food-borne bacteria. The researchers suggested that shoppers often were unaware that they needed to wash or bleach their bags between uses. And small-business advocates argue that paper bags are significantly more expensive for business owners, while not necessarily being more environmentally friendly.
All this is not to say that we should do nothing to reduce plastic shopping bag waste. Researchers like Taylor tend to favor fees over bans for plastic shopping bags. A small fee encourages shoppers to reuse bags while not driving them to alternatives that are as bad or worse. And research suggests that bans and fees are about equally effective in encouraging reuse.
A worse outcome might be if policymakers tried to ban all plastic bags. I am not sure what your home garbage situation would look – or smell – like if you had to use paper or cloth garbage bags. Personally, I have three young kids at home and a garbage can that seems to fill up by the hour, so I am not imagining a pretty picture. I’m a big consumer of garbage bags and usually spring for a high-quality megapack of Glad ForceFlexPlus bags, with LeakGuard and RipGuard technology and Febreze fresh scent. While I do often use cloth or paper bags to carry my groceries home, I cannot yet compromise on a good garbage bag. And now I realize my paper and cloth grocery bags are not as environmentally friendly as I had hoped.
There are other alternatives that could help reduce plastic bag waste apart from banning them. Manufacturers have supported legislation that would expand and improve municipal recycling programs. They have also invested in bins, placed at store entrances, where shoppers can deposit used bags when local recycling programs do not accept them.
As for your individual actions when carrying groceries or other purchases, researchers emphasize that the most important choice an individual can make is to reuse any type of bag as many times as possible. Consider a reusable polyester bag, which has less of an environmental impact than cotton. The more times you use any bag, whether paper, plastic or cotton, the better. (Just remember to wash out those cloth bags.)
Reducing litter and solid waste is a worthy goal for policymakers, and for all of us. But as plastic bag bans show, it is important to understand potential ripple effects before buying into a quick fix. There is no such thing as a free lunch, regardless of whether you carry that lunch in a plastic, paper or cloth bag. All of us need to consider the unintended consequences of our seemingly environmentally friendly actions.