The Plastic Bag Ban: Convenience Has Its Consequences

Billions of plastic bags are given away each year by grocery stores across the globe, polluting the planet and our bodies. Over the past year, Wales has seen the number of plastic bags given away by stores fall by up to 96%. What could this country have done to force such a dramatic drop? Wales introduced a 5 pence tax on plastic bags. Does the United States need to do something like that? Should we, like Wales, be actively trying to phase out the plastic bag? In a word, yes. Cities across California are beginning to implicate plastic bag bans and taxes similar to the one Wales introduced, but they face major obstacles. Especially from the chemical companies that produce and distribute plastic bags.

First, let us summarize the problem. Only 1-3% of plastic bags will be recycled. A typical free supermarket bag is used for an average of 20minutes before it is thrown away, and ends up in landfills across the world in the BILLIONS. These plastic bags will never degrade, only break down into smaller and smaller pieces that fill our soil, waterways, and ecosystems.

When offered the choice “Paper or plastic?” on the way out of the grocery store, it is easy to quickly answer the question based on convenience – especially when there’s no perfect answer. Plastics obviously pose many problems, but paper bags are not ideal either. Although more paper bags are recycled than plastic bags, paper bags support deforestation and the further depletion of our natural resources. It also takes more than four times as much energy to make a paper bag as it does to make a plastic bag. I find myself standing perplexed in front of my waiting cashier. The right answer has to be brought from home – a reusable fabric grocery bag!

But before fabric grocery bags can become the standard, the use of plastic bags needs to be either strongly discouraged (ala Wales’ approach with the plastic bag tax) or banned. Los Angeles became the latest in a string of California cities – including San Jose, San Francisco and Long Beach – to ban plastic bags. This year, Hawaii became the first US state to ban plastic bags. By the end of the year, all of LA’s stores will be required to have phased out the plastic bag – after that, there will be a 10 cent tax on each bag that they give to customers.

Across California, plastic bags bans vary in scale. Some apply to all retailers and restaurants, some only to supermarkets. Certain bans don’t discuss paper bags, but Los Angeles’ ban requires supermarkets to charge customers who want to use paper bags. While some have raised concerns on the economic hardships the ban could bring upon stores affected by the ban, “No stores have gone out of business,” said city environmental analyst Josephine Miller on Santa Monica’s similar plastic bag ban. Hopefully the action that these first few large cities (and Hawaii!) have taken will inspire cities across California and the nation to implement a similar ban. Oakland attempted a similar ban, but was quickly sued over it, causing it to drop the measure.

Just across the bay in San Francisco, concerns have also been drawn about the recent ban. Steven Joseph of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (yes, you heard that name right) argued that plastic bags are not less environmentally hazardous than paper or compostable bags, and that a ten cent tax would not effectively make people use reusable shopping bags. Stephen Joseph is media-savvy enough to not reveal his connections with the plastic bag industry. However, when Joseph and the Coalition sued Marin County for its plastic bag ban, the lawsuit named three plastic bag companies (all based in California)—Command Packaging, Crown Poly Inc., and Elkay Plastics Co.—as members of the coalition. Companies involved in the multi-billion dollar plastic bag industry are fighting tooth and nail to protect their reputations and profits. The American Chemical Council (the very trade group that advocates on behalf of plastic-bag manufacturers) even  funded a study that attempted to spread the false claim that reusable grocery bags could make those that use them sick!.

So, while the plastic bag ban movement continues to grow, the movement must still face the numerous plastic companies that spend billions to mislead the public and influence lawmakers to follow their agenda.

So, what can you do NOW?  Bring a reusable shopping bag when doing your weekly groceries run! They are easy to wash and use over and over again! All it requires it a little thinking ahead—keep one folded or rolled up in your bag or purse so it’s there for impromptu trips to the grocery store. This will save you from having to choose a one-use bag!