All it Takes is a Nickel: Plastic Bags and Earth Week

Here at Care2, we are excited to celebrate Earth Day on April 22. To extend the celebrations, we are calling this Earth Week, and you’ll find more blogs in honor of Mother Earth every day this week. Enjoy!

Sometimes the biggest problems can be solved with the simplest, cheapest solutions.

Case in point: getting rid of billions of horrible, nasty, single-use plastic bags.

According to Pati Robinson from The Cleaner Earth Project, in 2010 consumers worldwide used over 1 trillion throwaway plastic bags.  Because the bags don’t biodegrade, they cause serious environmental problems. When they get loose, they end up polluting rivers, streams and oceans, where animals mistake them for food and die. In fact, scientists have found that fish living in the Pacific Ocean eat more plastic than plankton! Wildlife also die when they get tangled in plastic and can’t break free.

Killing fish and wasting oil

Plus, plastic bags waste oil. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil are required to make the nearly 100 billion single use plastic bags used every year in the U.S. alone, says Cleaner Earth.

Then there’s the fright factor. Plastic bags are downright ugly when they get caught in trees or blow along the highway like synthetic tumbleweed.  

For years, municipalities the world over mounted campaigns to educate people about the harm plastic bags cause while trying to motivate consumers to use reusable bags, to no avail. Then someone smart hit on the idea to charge shoppers for every plastic bag they used.

Today, cities that require retailers to charge as little as a nickel for each bag a consumer takes are finding plastic bag use plummeting.

Here in Washington, D.C. where I live, disposable plastic bags used to make up 47% of the trash found in the Anacostia river basin. The Anacostia River feeds right into the Potomac, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Conceivably, a bag thrown on the sidewalk in D.C. could end up in a sea gull’s belly in no time at all.

A nickel changes everything

In January 2010, a nickel fee was placed on single-use plastic bags. In just six months, bag use decreased by 65%, reducing the total number of bags per month to 3.3 million, down from 22.5 million per month prior to the fee, reported the Washington Post.

Now, a nickel is not a lot of money. It’s just five pennies. Pretty much anyone who has bought enough stuff to need a bag can afford to pay for it.

Yet human nature being what it is, people seem to hate paying “extra” for something they used to get for free. I’ve stood in line at a cash register in D.C. and watched people fill their arms to overflowing with their purchases rather then cough up a measly five cents to put it in a bag.


Nope. Brilliant!

Lots of cities follow

Other cities are looking equally savvy. Brownsville, Texas, is actually charging people an extra dollar for each transaction that requires a disposable plastic bag. Why?

“We want to have a beautiful city,” Commissioner Edward Camarillo said. “We want to make sure that we take care of the environment.”

San Francisco actually started the trend in the U.S. in  2007. The result has been a 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect. Several other California cities, including Palo Alto, Malibu and Fairfax, have since followed suit. On the east coast, North Carolina banned single-use plastic and non-recyclable bags last year in the Outer Banks. Retailers like Ikea and Apple no longer give out free bags in their U.S. stores, either

Across the pond, British retailer, Marks and Spencer (M&S), has seen an 80% reduction in the use of disposable plastic shopping bags since introducing a charge for them nearly a year ago.  The company reports that the number of bags taken over the last year has fallen from 460 million a year to 80 million.

Why not the entire US?

This is such a simple solution, why doesn’t the entire U.S. adopt the policy? We wouldn’t be alone. India and China have already banned single use plastic bags outright. Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax in 2002 that cut consumption by 90%. Canada’s 2003 plastic bag tax has inspired 95% of consumers there to supply their own sustainable bags when they shop.

When’s the last time anyone ever got so much for a nickel?



by magnusfranklin via Creative Commons

by Diane MacEachern, author, Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World


William C
William C2 months ago


W. C
W. C2 months ago

Thank you.

Barbara Idso
Barbara Idso2 years ago

We need to get rid of Ziploc bags and plastic containers for all of our fruits and vegetables too!! Let's keep working on sustainable packaging!!

Kathryn O'Neill
Kathryn O'Neill2 years ago

I bring my own bags most of the time, and usually cloth or non plastic

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Manuel M.
Manuel Martinez6 years ago

Project GreenBag is the sustainable alternative to plastic bags. We make bags from organic cotton, affordable and made in California! :)

Elizabeth Zehren-Byers
Elizabeth Z6 years ago

I always have my reusable bags on hand. This is a great idea.

chris w.
Christine W6 years ago

I take my shopping bags with me for any kind of shopping. I keep them in my car so I'll always have them and keep a fold-up bag attached to my purse, (for just-in-case).

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

I agree that it's brilliant! I think more places should charge for plastic bags. Personally I'm always excited to get REWARDED 5-10 cents for bringing my own bags!!

Jane L.
Jane L6 years ago

I'm not sure it's the money factor necessarily that's causing people to stop using plastic bags. Though that may be the case for a majority of the population, for me, just having a salesperson ask me if I want a bag raises my attention to the popultion caused by too many plastic bags and so I say no. The link is very clear in my mind: plastic bag = more pollution. So I always say no when someone asks.

Working in the retail industry myself, I find the same results as this publication. Whenever I ask if they'd like a bag, the customer usually says no whether or not we charge them.