For & Against: Plastic Bag Bans

“Why is there so much opposition to plastic bag bans?”

The following question was recently posted on Quora:

“Why is there so much opposition to plastic bag bans?”

The responses included arguments both for and against the bans. Here are some of the opinions below:

 

Gayle Laakmann McDowell:

Because science. That’s why. At least, that’s why I oppose the bans. More specifically, I oppose the bans because:

  1. Plastic is not necessarily worse for the environment than paper bags. It’s complicated and depends what tradeoffs and assumptions you make [1]. Yes, paper degrades, but it’s also a lot bulkier. Guess what? All that bulk has to be transported… using lots and lots of gas. Paper also requires cutting down forests which kill trees and require more gas. Paper production is, generally speaking, a heavily polluting industry. You can certainly argue that paper is worse than plastic too. It’s not clear cut.It’s sort of like asking if it’s better to eat fast food everyday or to smoke. Both are bad, but in very different ways so it depends on how you compare risk of cancer / lung problems to obesity. This is much like the paper vs. plastic debate, except there’s even more factors to consider. Ultimately, you can argue equally well that either one is better or worse.
  2. Plastic is not necessarily worse for the environment than reusable cloth / canvas bags [2]. How could this be? Because plastic bags have less environmental impact per bag than reusable bags. This should be expected – reusable bags are way more durable, and thus take a lot more energy to produce. It’s only through reuse that reusable bags compensate for their far, far greater environmental impact.The thing is though that reusable bags are reused an average of 50 times and it’s looking like it takes 130+ or more reuses to compensate for the additional environmental impact of reusable bags. D’oh!
  3. Plastic bags are a lot more convenient. With a large load of groceries, the paper bags get very bulky. They fill up an entire [plastic!] trash bag by themselves. The handles are flimsy and tear. You can’t carry as much in one, or carry as many bags at once. Plastic bags can be reused for lunch bags, dog poop, bathroom / small trash can liners, and other things. In many cases, not getting plastic bags “for free” at the grocery stores means going out and purchasing them instead.

So, given equal (or equally unclear) harm or to the environment, I’ll go with the more convenient option.

The bans in particular frustrate me because they’re a knee-jerk reaction based on false science that greatly inconvenience people. If you’re going to ban plastic bags, then it needs to be very clear that they’re substantially worse. That’s just not the case. I’m all for getting serious about the environment and legislating some changes, but it needs to be actually better. It can’t just be an assumption that takes into account only one factor (trash production).

And, to make matters worse, people aren’t focusing on where they could make a difference: educate people on recycling and make it more convenient. For example, why not require apartment buildings to have a recycling bin next to the mailboxes? Why not spend more effort educating people on what can be recycled? There is so much more work to be done here. I think these bans are focusing on the wrong areas.


Some studies to get you started on paper vs. plastic vs. reusable bags:
[1] Paper vs. Plastic: (a) Myth: Paper is Better Than Plastic (b) A New Look at the Bag Scourge
[2] Disposable Bags vs. Reusable Bags:(a) A Survey on the Economic Effects of Los Angeles County’s Plastic Bag Ban, (b) Paper or Plastic? The Answer Might Surprise You (c) Political  Calculations – Paper, Plastic or Cloth: Which Bag is Best for the Environment? (d) Study: Plastic grocery bags better than canvas?

 

David Bailey:

There are (much) better ways to drastically reduce use of plastic bags with advantageous second order effects than banning plastic bags outright.

There are few times when Welsh policy influences the rest of the UK and Europe but they did something very smart to reduce plastic bag consumption by up to 90%[1]. They introduced a mandatory charge of 5 pence (10 cents) per bag.

Some consumers saw this as an extra tax or way to make money but the majority supported the idea. Clerks have to ask customers how many bags they want and remind them there is a charge.

82% of Welsh shoppers bring their own multi-use bags to do their groceries [2]. This is a major behavioural change. Those that used the single use bags used less, opting to pack the bags more efficiently.

It turns out that associating a cash value to plastic bags led to a major shift in the way people thought about them. They were no longer free and worthless, but an expense that can be avoided.

I noticed when I moved to San Francisco that there were no plastic bags and instead they used these huge thick brown paper (actually more like card) bags. I was not impressed. This is like replacing one vice with another. Better to incentivise bringing your own bag.

[1] Carrier bag reduction up to 90%
[2] Bag charge ‘can help all of UK’

 

Venkateswaran Vicky:

Myself being a social thinker and humble fan of nature’s beauty, I feel plastic ban is not a bad idea, however I could think of some of the key reasons for the opposition.
1. People are Self centered
People tend to be self centered and infact there is nothing wrong about it. Plastics are cheap, comfortable, durable and ubiquitous, making them best fit for everyday use. Plastic has become vital like electricity for majority. Ban to such a product obviously won’t be favored by majority.
2. No proper substitutes
There is no proper substitues for plastic bags that are equally good, cheap, comfortable and durable. Paper bags could be a substitute but it’s niether environment friendly nor comfortable nor durable. Paper production requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water as well as toxic chemicals like sulphurous acid, which can lead to acid rain and water pollution. Jute bags could be comfortable and durable but not cheap. Hence there is no effective substitute for plastic bags as of now.
3. Less awareness about impacts and environmental degradation plastic causes
Most people are not aware about the impacts of plastic and the amount of environmental degradation that plastics have caused.Plastic causes serious damage to environment both during its production and disposal. It is a non-biodegradable material composed of toxic chemicals it pollutes not only ecosystems but human health. If plastic get into the environment it is a hazard to all life living in the water environment and land. Fish, birds, marine mammals, reptiles, and other animals can become entangled in discarded plastics and sustain injuries from ingesting plastics. Thus they don’t find sufficient reasons to ban plastics from their perception.
4. Lack of knowledge on the scales of consumption
Most people are driven by thought that ‘I use just 1 or 2 plastic bags per day, how can that be a threat to environment?‘ howerver the scale of consumption is beyond their perception
Plastic bags in USA alone [1]

  • Approx. 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year. That’s more than 1,200 bags per US resident, per year.
  • Approx. 100 billion of the 380 billion are plastic shopping bags.
  • An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
  • Only 1 to 2% of plastic bags in the USA end up getting recycled.
  • Thousands of marine animals and more than 1 million birds die each year as a result of plastic pollution.
  • The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean.
  • Plastic bags are often mistakenly ingested by animals, clogging their intestines which results in death by starvation. Other animals or birds become entangled in plastic bags and drown or can’t fly as a result.
  • Even when they photo-degrade in landfill, the plastic from single-use bags never goes away, and toxic particles can enter the food chain when they are ingested by unsuspecting animals.
  • Greenpeace says that at least 267 marine species are known to have suffered from getting entangled in or ingesting marine debris. Nearly 90% of that debris is plastic.
  • Americans consume more than 10 billion paper bags per year. Approximately 14 million trees are cut down every year for paper bag production.

Possible alternates to plastic ban
I suggest plastics can be dealt by government the way they deal with tobacco products like cigarette.

  • Increased taxation
  • Making it mandatory to include Warning message: ‘Avoid plastics, it degrades our beautiful environment’  to each plastic bag
  • Fine civilians for improper disposal of plastics
  • Banning plastic in reserved areas for tourism, wildlife and bird sanctuaries

 

Ben Mordecai:

I oppose the bans. Banning plastic bags sends a message: if people think that something is bad for the environment, then ban it, and ban it in isolation.

Like it or not, plastic bags are just minutia. I mean, look at the contents of your shopping cart. The plastic bag is probably the least amount of packaging out of everything you’re buying.

Plastic bags aren’t a one-dimensional environmental decision. Does it cost more to transport other bags besides plastic ones? How many saved plastic bags equal the amount of material required to produce a reusable bag or a paper bag? Even bundling everything together as an “environmental decision” is problematic. How much landfill space is equal to one gallon of diesel emissions? Do alternatives spend more fuel in the process than plastic bags? What percentage of plastic bags are recycled? Does recycling itself pose environmental hazards?

The same thing happens frequently with bottled water. People are outraged over the extra packaging that is produced and thrown away and that we’re shipping water across the country, but ultimately… no one is upset about doing the same thing with Coke or Pepsi. So shipping and packaging water is terrible because of its environmental effects, but if you carbonate it and add corn syrup and flavoring then it’s forgivable?

Disclosure: I work in the packaging industry, but my company has no stake in the choice of paper vs. plastic vs. reusable packaging.

 

Betsy Magas:

Because of a combination of laziness, habit, and rationalization.

Plastic bags are convenient and ubiquitous. Even those who pay attention
and recognize the environmental impact still don’t think about it
before they walk into a store. Someone who remembers with a cart half full of groceries isn’t likely to walk back out to get a bag from the car.

I doubt that most stores have any interest in curtailing plastic bag use. We live in a society where purchasing habits have been carefully studied and scrutinized (see Paco Underhill’s books on the subject) to optimize store layouts and attend to any little detail of shopping that might potentially interfere with our buying everything in sight impulsively, without a second thought to whether or not we actually need it or can afford it. It is in the stores’ interest to make the shopping experience as frictionless as possible, which includes keeping lines short, as well as happily handing out advertising-laden bags to convey the new purchases home. They are not now free, but the charge is figured into the cost of our purchases at some point. Occasionally, it is refunded if we bring our own bags, but I wonder whether most stores really want customers wandering around with opaque canvas bags.

(Aside: when I bring my bag, I sometimes use it in lieu of a cart or basket. I buy less that way, which is certainly not what the stores want. I am limited to what I can easily carry, which is important to me if I arrived on foot—not exactly a typical suburban behavior. If I were a store manager, though, I expect I would just see one more potential means of shoplifting each time a canvas bag walked in.)

For those shoppers who bother to notice and think about it, there is another sort of justification. How bad, goes the reasoning, could my one or two bags be? We can recycle them, right? Of course, the problem isn’t that there are one or two bags, but that there are one or two bags per person, per purchase, times billions of people times thousands of purchases.

Yet the day-to-day consumer sees only a few bags at a time. S/he does not see the volume of bags generated by even a single store for a single day (much less a world’s worth of stores over the course of decades), or the great garbage patches in the ocean. S/he does not see the fact that there is truly no “away” in “throw away,” or the still relatively minuscule percentage of bags that actually do get recycled, or the energy and resources that went into manufacturing the bags in the first place.

S/he sees, instead, that bags are there (as they always have been), they are free, they are pretty handy for carrying stuff and keeping wet and sticky stuff from messing up the car, that one or two aren’t really so bad. Besides, they’re handy for lining the trash can and picking up after the dog.

If the public is so opposed to plastic bag bans (how presumptuous of our government to try to tell us what is good for us!), a good intermediate measure would be to charge a small but noticeable fee per bag, perhaps 25¢. They would be there for those who really do still need them, but it would be an incentive for people to bring back bags, and to think twice about double bagging and bagging fewer items in each bag.

Here’s how it works in Sweden. A store customer may buy a bag by picking it up in front of the check stand and adding it to his or her order. It is rung up like any other item. These bags are generally a little larger and sturdier than the bags here, so fewer are needed, they invite reuse, and they hold up to taking the train or bus home. The purchases, once scanned, are placed in a divided tray behind the checker. Someone (usually the customer, after paying) bags the groceries. The checker then slides the tray divider to the other side and checks the next person’s purchases into that side. It’s not so drastically different from how we do things here, but I believe they are much more aware of how many bags they use.

Quite the contrary, in my opinion it’s a no-brainer that plastic bags areawesome. This article puts it well: In Defense of Plastic Bags

What stood out the most to me was the wasted time. I saw checkout people asking everyone ahead of me in line how many bags they wanted. They were slowing down the whole line.

At Trader Joe’s, the checkout person actually had to cancel my checkout, after my credit card was already processed, to add a bag fee. She tried to guess how many bags I needed, without asking, in order to save time. But she got it wrong. Everyone behind me had to wait.…

Why would anyone want to ban plastic bags? They are light, clean, strong, cheap and useful. Grocery stores chose them for a reason: because plastic bags work great.…

Another issue with the plastic bag ban is health:

I want to stress the importance of buying WASHABLE bags and recommend that you wash them in hot water very frequently. … I won’t be specific, but I had a family member that worked In grocery and shared horror stories of the filth and unsanitary reusable bags handed to them by customers. One word: maggots.

Unsanitary and disgusting! Note that we’re not just talking about convenience or aesthetics. This has deadly consequences: banning plastic bags in the entire U.S. would kill 1,380 people per year.

 

Tony Maiorana:

Because people hate being told what to do and when has banning something ever really worked that well?

I think there are better alternatives to a ban.

Plastic bags are bad because they are around for forever.

1) Make bags that are not low density polyethylene (LDPE) that can degrade into something like a fertilizer maybe by enzymatic catalysis, UV-Light, or hydrolysis.

2) Enact a plastic bag tax where each bag is five addition cents to whatever that person might buy. Washington DC and Montgomery County (Maryland) have both enacted these policies after SF did showed that it could work. I saw people buying 100 dollars worth of groceries refuse to pay 20 cents for bags to carry them to their car and just insisted on putting their food back into their cart and transporting it out loosely. People will go crazy to save just that little bit of money if they can.

Plastic bags are also extremely cheap to make and since they are bad for the environment there should be a tax on their consumption (like taxing cigarettes) to counteract the strain they put on our environment so make them expensive enough to where the price outweighs the convenience and no more plastic bags.

 

Matthew Kuzma:

The main reason is that it’s a ban.

Just about anything in our modern built environment was made through a process that harmed the environment, so why single out plastic bags and incandescent bulbs?  We ban things when they are disproportionately dangerous to ourselves and our environment (DDT, Lead paint) but for everything else, it’s a trade-off.

The right policy response to these issues is a tax or fee to offset the external harm they do.  And since you don’t want to be taxing harm in one form but not in another, you should be applying the tax at the root level.  In this case, petroleum.

This is why a carbon tax on fossil fuels is a popular idea.  It avoids the minutae of banning this or that use, subsidizing this or that alternative energy source, and setting mandates for efficiency one industry at a time.  Price carbon correctly, and everything falls into place.  Wasteful products become prohibitively expensive.  Efficient alternatives become the most cost-effective option without the need for subsidies.  And individuals still get to choose what they spend their money on.

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