Plastic bags have a bad reputation, but banning them could have some surprising negative effects. A ban could have repercussions on consumer convenience and even the economy without making a truly significant improvement to the environment.
Plastic Bag Alternatives Aren't Necessarily Better
The common belief is that just about anything is better than the typical thin plastic bag you get from the supermarket, but it's not so simple. There are surprising environmental issues to consider, as well as situations where plastic just works better than paper or cotton. Sometimes, plastic is even being reused in the process (like lining a bathroom trashcan or cleaning up after your dog on a walk).
Paper Lasts Longer in Landfills
Paper takes up more room in landfills and doesn't exactly disintegrate rapidly. A SciDev.net article states that paper bags take up nine times more room than plastic and break down at about the same rate. Switching to biodegradable plastic bags might be something to consider, but a ban on plastic bags won't do much for the landfills. If anything, assuming an increase in paper bag usage, it could make the problem worse.
Plastic's Carbon Footprint Is Better
An interview with chemistry professor David Tyler posted on the University of Oregon's website revealed that plastic bags actually produce less stress on the environment than paper or cotton bags. They use less water, require fewer chemicals, and produce less greenhouse gas than the other two options. Plastic has half the carbon footprint of the cotton and paper bags. It's counterintuitive to think that plastic could be less harmful than something natural, like cotton, but it is.
In 2005, the United States Department of Energy published a report titled "Energy and Environmental Profile of the U.S. Pulp and Paper Industry" that discussed not only the resources that go into creating paper and the pollution the process creates, but the amount of waste in the industry. By comparison, the petroleum industry has become efficient enough to create very little waste, according to David Tyler.
A United Kingdom's Environment Agency's report on the life cycle of bag options available in 2006 notes that "paper, LDPE, non-woven PP, and cotton bags should be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential" than plastic. The report compared the traditional thin plastic bags (high-density polyethylene, or HDPE), non-woven polypropylene (PP), cotton, low-density polypropylene (LDPE), and paper bags.
Assuming the plastic bags are the worst simply because they're plastic and don't break down rapidly seems to make sense, but a wider view reveals that the decision whether to ban the bags isn't so simple. Their creation and shipment (they weigh less and take up less room than paper, therefore requiring less gas and fewer trucks to be transported) of plastic bags aren't as detrimental to the environment as one might think, at least by comparison.
Increased Usage of Other Plastic Bags
When plastic bags given away for free in stores are banned, there's an increase in the types of plastic bags people can purchase to fulfill the same jobs as the free ones. For example, The Guardian reported a 400 percent increase in bin liner and large black garbage bag sales when the free plastic bags became subject to a 15 euro cents "plastax" in Ireland. It did decrease the use of plastic bags by about one billion per year, but that use was simply displaced in large part. The plastic in the replacement bags is thicker and a bigger threat to the environment than the thinner plastic in the free bags used in stores.
Small Percentage of the Litter Problem
According to the Reason Foundation, plastic bags aren't as big of a litter problem as it seems. They make up less than one percent of visible litter, don't block storm drains, make up just 0.4 percent of municipal waste, and don't even cut down on litter when banned (instead, there was an increase in litter in San Francisco after plastic bags were banned).
Therefore, one could argue that efforts spent trying to ban plastic bags is effort that could be put to better use elsewhere, perhaps on garbage issues that take up larger percentages of the litter and land pollution problem.
Reusable Bags Aren't Sanitary
The Reason Foundation article also goes on to say that reusing bags in the warmer months could lead to an increase in bacteria. If you're using them in the grocery store, this is even more of a concern. The bacteria could spread not only to your food, but to shopping carts and checkout counters, where it could also affect others' food. In fact, it could even transfer germs, bacteria, and other health concerns beyond food and into the gym!
Cost of Washing Bags
Washing the reusable bags after use makes them an even bigger drain on the environment because so much water would be used to keep them clean and safe to use. The article says it would cost $1.5 billion dollars for all the California residents (12.4 million households) washed their bags once a week for a quick five minutes.
People Don't Clean Them
The University of Arizona reported that 97 percent of people who use reusable bags are not aware that they should wash and sanitize them regularly. When meat and produce are stored in the trunk in reusable bags, the risk of bacteria growth is even higher because of the warmer temperatures. Half of the bags used in the study, which included random reusable bags from customers in Los Angeles, Tucson, and San Francisco, were contaminated with "coliform bacteria, including E.Coli" according to professor Charles Gerba, in high enough amounts to be a serious health risk and potentially even deadly.
Bacteria, Yeast, Mold, and More
A Newswire report states a food poisoning risk from bacteria, mold, yeast, and coliform, but also says there are additional health risks, like bacterial skin infections, allergic reactions, the triggering of asthma attacks, and even ear infections. In the study discussed, 64 percent of reusable bags contained bacteria, 30 percent had higher bacteria counts than what is considered safe for drinking water, and 40 percent of the bags had yeast or mold. The use of these bags for things other than transporting groceries (using them as diaper bags or for dirty gym clothes, for example), could increase the exposure to MRSA. Fifty percent of people in the study were using the bags for multiple purposes.
Single-use bags, by contrast, had no remarkable issues with yeast, mold, or bacteria. They were the most sanitary option, along with the very first use of a reusable bag. According to the University of Arizona study, single-use and brand new reusable bags were not contaminated at all.
The Cost Would Hurt the Poor
If plastic bags are banned that means everyone has to go out and purchase reusable bags. For someone with a very tight budget, needing to buy bags to carry their groceries and other items home could mean less food on the table. Add to that the need to purchase trash bags and other items they usually use the free bags for, and the poor are at quite a disadvantage.
Overestimated Contribution to the Environment
Sustainable Colorado points out the likelihood that people would overestimate their contribution to helping the environment. If they give up plastic bags under the belief that they're a huge problem to the earth, they may stop trying in other areas where the attempt to be "greener" would have a bigger impact. By giving up plastic and reusing bags, people may feel they're already doing their part to make the world a better place and stop their efforts there.
Going green and saving the environment involves more than just giving up plastic bags. Stopping pollution will involve efforts on multiple fronts, from plastic bags as part of land pollution issues to issues surrounding energy, air, and water pollution.
Plastic Bags Are Cheaper for Stores
In an interview at National Geographic, Robert Batement, president of plastic bag manufacturing company Roplast Industries, says the cost of a plastic bag is one cent. Compared to the four cents per paper bag, plastic is the winner for stores from a budgeting standpoint. That difference alone saves stores quite a bit of money. Bateman called plastic bags a "victim of their success" (they are so convenient, functional, and inexpensive, they're now everywhere and sometimes overused) and suggested biodegradable plastic bags as an alternative.
Reusable Bags Aren't Reused
Even when people switch to reusable bags, those bags aren't reused enough to make up for the extra resources and carbon footprint involved in their creation. In many cases, they're treated like single-use bags, tossed after one (or maybe a few) uses. Bloomberg View reported surprising results that came after a plastic bag ban in Austin, Texas. Two years after the ban was put in place, people were "throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate." The article goes on to say that if it's happening in Austin, it's probably happening anywhere else there's a ban on plastic bags. There are almost as many reusable bags at Austin's recycling centers now as there were single-use bags removed from circulation.
Those reusable bags aren't usually able to be recycled, either, and they can cause problems with the equipment when they make their way into recycling centers on accident. Where do they end up after a brief stint of use? Landfills. Landfills have a host of environmental problems all their own that people should be cautious before adding to them.
The Cost of Education Programs
A movement to educate the public on how to use these bags safely would cost state and local governments. Forcing constituents to transition to reusable bags without alerting everyone to the risks of cross-contamination and teaching them how to use and care for the bags would be a public health danger, according to the University of Arizona article.
In some cases, the education costs could fall on retailers' shoulders. A Connecticut General Assembly report discussed educational programs used in some states.
Encouraging Reusable Bags
In an attempt to encourage customers to use reusable bags instead of single-use plastic ones, Tucson, Arizona retailers were required to educate their customers through plastic bag recycling programs and teach them the benefits of recycling plastic bags or choosing reusable bags. In addition, they had to train employees on how to reduce the use of plastic bags, educate children in school about plastic bag use (this could include contests and other promos, and social media), and more.
In a public-private partnership method in Wilton, Connecticut, there was a six-month training program for residents, 12,000 reusable bags were given out, a public relations campaign was set up, and there was an art contest for the best reusable bag decoration.
Switching Isn't Simple
In the Tucson and Wilton cases, the goal wasn't to ban the bags entirely, but to cut down on their use. However, it shows the effort involved in getting the word out about the use of plastic bags versus reusable bags. Residents and employees need to be trained on how to treat reusable bags, understand why they're using them instead of disposable thin plastic bags, and learn how to use them safely.
The switch isn't necessarily quick and simple, and without education on sanitizing reusable bags, there's a public health hazard, as well. All of that comes with high costs.
They Are Reusable and Functional
Plastic bags are functional, durable, and reusable. Need to carry a lot of grocery bags at once? Plastic works better than paper for that. Want to keep your wet clothes or shoes separate from other items in your beach bag, or separate your shoes from your clothes in your luggage? Plastic bags work better, especially in the case of the wet items (paper could leak and/or rip, and cotton also leaks). Plastic bags generally won't leak unless there's a hole (not the case for paper and cotton), and water won't cause it to tear. You can reuse them in bathrooms, bedrooms, and home offices instead of buying separate bags for your smaller trash cans. If you want to clean up after your dog on a walk, you probably won't want to use your paper or cotton bags.
Reusing and recycling the thin plastic bags, which is possible because they are so durable and multi-functional compared to paper, cuts down on their carbon footprint even more.
A plastic bag ban wouldn't only affect the environment. It would have an economic impact as well. A report from the National Center for Policy Analysis found that stores inside ban areas in Los Angeles saw a six percent decrease in sales whereas stores just outside of those areas saw a sales growth of nine percent over the course of a year.
On top of that, jobs were lost. Stores in areas that did not allow plastic bags saw a 10 percent drop in employment. Employment outside the ban areas increased. Banning plastic bags on a large scale could also endanger at least some of the 30,000+ plastic bag manufacturing and recycling jobs in the United States.
Reusable Bags Come From Overseas
The National Center for Policy Analysis says most (at least 95 percent) of the reusable bags are from overseas. Most of those are from China. Not only does that mean an increase in fuel needed to get them to the United States, but in many cases, the bags from China contain toxic chemicals that aren't permitted in the production of bags in the states. In addition to the concerns about fuel consumption and toxic chemicals, getting the bags from China and elsewhere means fewer bags are produced in the United States, which leads to fewer jobs.
A Ban Could Be Detrimental
Banning plastic bags in lieu of cotton or paper could have a negative impact on the environment overall, not to mention the inconvenience of limiting reuse of those bags for everyday things like lining trash cans, protecting your belongings, or even cleaning up after your dog. In addition, banning plastic bags could leave a significant number of people without jobs and cost individuals, communities, and governments money, whether through the purchase of reusable bags or educational programs for the public. Though it may sound like a positive change on the surface, banning plastic bags could actually be detrimental to the environment and the economy.