Should we ban plastic shopping bags?

plastic shopping bags polluting a gardenNew York City alone uses 5.2 billion plastic shopping bags every year. That amounts to 10,000 per minute. To put it another way, New Yorkers use a ton of plastic bags every minute. Or one barrel of oil every minute.

Very few plastic bags get recycled. Most end up in landfills. Too many end up as litter.

In a small stream, one or two plastic bags caught on brush across the stream can contribute to major flooding. Plastic shopping bags have plenty of other environmental downsides.

So many municipalities have decided to ban plastic shopping bags. Bad idea!

Plastic films besides shopping bags

You buy a lot of plastic bags at the grocery store whether you carry your groceries home in plastic shopping bags or not. Here are just a few ways:

  • Produce, either bagged or loose items you place in a bag yourself
  • Bulk bakery products like bagels or rolls
  • Sliced bread and buns
  • Dried beans
  • Noodles
  • Luncheon meats
  • Cheese – especially the packages of individually wrapped slices

Elsewhere, clothing, toys, hardware, and all manner of other products come in plastic bags or wrapped in a plastic film.

The figures I cited in the first paragraph refer only to plastic shopping bags. It seems likely that shopping bags represent only a minority of the plastic film we use and discard. Bag bans would do nothing about it.

Alternatives to plastic shopping bags

cloth alternatives to plastic shopping bagsPaper bags are no more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. Manufacturing paper bags emits 80% more greenhouse gases.

It results in 50 times more water pollutants. Plus the fact that a tree cut down to make paper can no longer absorb carbon dioxide.

Making paper bags also consumes four times a much energy and three times as much water. It generates 80% more solid waste.

Because of inefficiencies in the process of recycling paper, it requires almost twice as much energy to recycle paper than plastic of equal weight.

Paper is biodegradable, of course—except in landfills, where not even food waste degrades very fast any more.

The most obvious alternative to “paper or plastic” is using reusable bags. Let’s not forget, though, that everything has environmental consequences.

Three basic kinds of reusable bags exist: polypropylene, polyester, and canvas.

Polypropylene bags amount to larger, heavier, and sturdier plastic bags. Whatever a polypropylene bag weighs, making it created twice as much emission of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, making one polypropylene bag releases as much as making eleven disposable plastic bags.

Polyester, a manmade fabric, also comes from oil. Again, whatever one of them weighs, making it emits twice as much greenhouse gases. One polyester bag releases as much as making seven disposable plastic bags.

Some companies make polyester from recycled plastic bottles (PET, or 1 in the recycling triangle.) That should reduce the overall impact of polyester shopping bags.

Canvas bags actually have a greater environmental impact than either of these plastic derivatives. Most of them are made of cotton. Growing cotton requires lots of water. Conventionally grown cotton also accounts for a large percentage of the world’s use of herbicides to defoliate it before harvest.

Making them from bamboo, hemp, or even organic cotton reduces their environmental impact. I have no figures for how these alternatives compare with polypropylene or polyester.

An unpublished report by the UK government found that manufacturing a canvas bag has 171 times the impact of making a disposable plastic bag of the same capacity. In other words, the canvas bag made from conventional cotton has to be used 171 times in order to break even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Reusable bags must also be laundered, adding more water and energy to their environmental footprint.

I have a very large, heavy canvas bag I got from Target about ten years ago for turning in a number of plastic bags. It’s larger and heavier than the average canvas bag. When I take it into grocery stores and let their employees do the bagging, they tend not to use it unless they fill up all the rest. But it holds as much as three or four plastic bags.

So it has the most environmental impact of any of the others in my collection. Suppose I have used it once a month instead of three plastic bags. That usage would save the equivalent of 36 plastic bags a year and take about five years to break even with the impact of 171 plastic shopping bags.

I think I have averaged using it more than once a month, in fact. Self checkout has its advantages!

Despite their environmental costs, though, reusable bags are obviously better for the environment than disposable bags—provided we actually use them.

Quite apart from comparing the greenhouse gases and other aspects of making the different kinds of bags, reusable bags post no waste management or littering problems. Our environment would be better off if everyone used reusable bags instead of disposable shopping bags.

That ought to be a point in favor of bag bans. It isn’t.

Unintended consequences of plastic shopping bag bans

plastic shopping bagsOlympia, Washington’s plastic bag ban resulted in all the grocery stores removing their plastic recycling bins. The city banned only plastic shopping bags, not all other uses for similar lightweight plastic films.

So now residents have nowhere to recycle bread bags, etc. that they accumulate.

I had a similar experience in graduate school. I enthusiastically participated in a petition drive in support of Iowa’s first bottle bill, which passed in 1978.

It was supposed to reduce litter. That’s a while ago, so I looked into the history of bottle bills to refresh my memory.

The article says that bottle bills arose because of the rise of single-use beverage bottles. They were supposed to reduce litter, reduce landfill use, and encourage recycling by requiring deposits on all bottles.

People had long paid deposits on refillable glass pop bottles. People could make money by scavenging bottles from the side of the road and taking them to a grocery story. It seemed like a good idea.

Almost immediately after passage of Iowa’s bill, though, vending machines that dispensed glass bottles started to disappear. When I asked why, I was told it was because of the bottle bill! No longer could I get a bottle of pop, drink it, and put the empty in the nearby tray.

I have long forgotten the details of that bill, but I certainly don’t recall a deposit required for disposable cans. And the article I cited makes a huge factual blunder claiming the intent of the bill was to encourage recycling. Municipal recycling didn’t exist. No drop-off centers anywhere, and certainly no curb-side pickup.

So a bill intended to reduce litter actually increased it. No one had incentive to pick up the cans litterbugs tossed out their car windows. The stores hadn’t charged a deposit they could refund.

Some elements of the environmental movement dating back to the first Earth Day in 1970 have considered the problems so serious that solutions will require government coercion. If their proposals don’t work, they stubbornly refuse to notice.

Meanwhile, most Americans oppose anything that looks like government coercion. Especially government coercion coming from a pressure group that has squandered the nearly unanimous good will it used to have.

As more and more cities consider bag bans, more and more states are preemptively outlawing them.

Don’t let anyone tell you that opposition to bag bans comes from people who don’t care about environmental issues. They may well care much more about squashing tyranny than sustainability. But the bag bans are too narrow and short sighted to have any real environmental benefit.

Other places mandate that stores charge money for bags. Aldi already does as a matter of corporate policy. Small-government advocates might not like those policies any better. But they seem more likely to encourage people to abandon disposable bags without coercion. And grocery stores will continue to collect bags for recycling.

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Photo credits:
Plastic bag in a garden. Some rights reserved by Julian Stallabrass.
Cloth shopping bags. Some rights reserved by lindsay.
Jumble of plastic bags. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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