While there are still several influential politicians who would like to say otherwise, the fact of the matter is that banning plastic grocery bags actually does help the environment. Plastic bags are a source of literally billions of tons of waste and simply adding a service charge at grocery stores can significantly reduce the amount of landfill we create.
One of the biggest success stories is China. In 2008, the Chinese government made it illegal for store owners to give out plastic bags for free. Shop owners had to charge a fee – as long as it was not lower than the actual price of the bag – and were allowed to keep the profits for themselves. Before this law, the average Chinese consumer would receive around 21 plastic bags a week and would rarely use the same bags twice. After the first year of the program, the ban saved the country 40 billion plastic bags (1.6 million tons of oil) and even led to the closure of the state’s largest plastic bag manufacturer. Now in its second year, the ban has saved around 100 billion plastic bags. Despite poor law enforcement, in 2010, research done by a student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed that the people in China have reduced their plastic bag consumption by nearly half, with almost half of these bags being reused. Haoran He, the researcher of this paper, also notes that nearly 60 percent of all stores still give out their bags for free due to fierce competition between stores. Rather than allowing stores to set their own price, he suggests having a government-mandated price with the profits set aside to finance various environmental measures. In fact, plastic bags are banned or restricted in over 25 countries around the world, including Taiwan, Ireland, Singapore, Belgium, South Africa and Italy.
Still, many other countries are struggling to rid themselves of this petroluem byproduct. The US has found success on a city level. The nation’s capitol, Washington D.C., levied a 5 cent tax on all plastic grocery bags at the beginning of 2010. Within weeks, the city saw plastic bag numbers drop from 22.5 million to 3 million, while at the same time generating nearly $150,000 in revenue. These revenues were used to help fund the clean up of the Anacostia River. More recently, Los Angeles county passed a sweeping ban that will push a 10 cent tax on all plastic grocery bags on over 1,000 stores in unincorporated areas. This ordinance will affect 1.1 million people and reach its goal by 2012. Despite city-wide support for the plastic bans, many state officials are still arguing against these plastic bans, stating that the ban would cost 1,000 jobs, levy $1 billion in “hidden taxes” and create a new bureacracy worth millions to oversee the law.
Not surprisingly, many of those against the bans are those involved in the plastic bag industry. A California state-wide bill to ban plastic bags was killed in November of 2010 by special interest groups, namely Hilex Poly Co (plastic bag manufacturer) and American Chemistry Council. Both companies spent nearly $2 million to sway public opinion against the ban. The American Chemistry Council represents the interest of chemical companies, 80 percent of which produce plastic bags and have set up a site stating the environmental benefits of plastic bags compared to paper bags. According to Paper Bag Facts (a site created by the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council):
- It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does to recycle a pound of paper.
- Plastic grocery bags use 70 percent less energy to produce than paper bags.
- Nearly 90 percent of the US population reuses their plastic bags.
- Nationwide, nearly 832 million pounds of bags and films were recycled.
According to an LA County Environmental Study on the banning of plastic bags, should 85 percent of people using plastic turn to paper bags (in a conservative worst-case scenario) there “would [be an] increase [of] emissions of GHGs by approximately 54 metric tons per day, which is approximately 19,700 metric tons per year, or 0.002 metric tons per capita per year.” There is currently no evidence that more people would switch to paper bags should plastic be banned, though currently only 2 percent of stores offer a reusable option. Should more stores offer reusable bags, a minimum use of three times would have the same GHG impact as a single-use plastic bag, and impacts would reduce more after further use. Even if people switch to paper bags, 38.7 percent of paper bags are recycled versus 11.9 percent of plastic bags, leading to less overall waste.
While the banning of plastic bags may seem like a good idea, states, cities and countries need to push reusable bags rather than paper bags on the general populace. When looked at overall, the banning of plastics have significantly decreased waste in landfills and when coupled with affordable and easily accesible reusable bags, could result in much lower GHG emissions.
Photo credit: 2.bp