Plastic bag bans and taxes are becoming more common within the United States. Barrington, Rhode Island is the latest city to consider a ban on plastic bags, with a proposal that would completely eliminate plastic bags from the city’s retail establishments and charge five cents per paper bag used. This initiative would encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable shopping bags, subsequently reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, along the side of the road, and in waterways.
Similar bans have already been implemented in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and the entire state of Hawaii.
Benefits of Cutting Down on Plastic
- Reduced garbage on the roadside and in waterways. According to Anacostia Riverkeeper, a D.C. organization focused on cleaning up one of the nation’s dirtiest rivers, the recently implemented bag tax in D.C. had very significant and tangible results. Plastic bag use fell dramatically from 22.5 million bags per month in 2009 to 3 million per month in 2010. Subsequently, river traps in the Anacostia saw a dramatic reduction in the number of bags removed from the river – nearly 50% of all waste in the traps before the ban was plastic bags; today the appearance of bags is virtually nonexistent.
- Plastic bags kill animals. It is estimated that over 100,000 animals are killed each year because of plastic bags. Some animals become entangled in the bags; others ingest them and either choke or become sick from the toxicity of the plastic. Cutting down on plastic bag use would result in fewer animal deaths (which reduces disruption to whole ecosystems).
- Plastic bags don’t biodegrade. Plastic bags decompose at a much slower rate than paper, and some scientists question whether plastic bags ever fully biodegrade. Current estimates for plastic bag decomposition range from 100 to 1,000 years; wherever that number falls, we can be sure that plastic bags will be around for quite some time. Fewer plastic bags result in less landfill clutter and less inhibition of soil nutrient absorption.
- Funds for environmental efforts. As a bonus, money collected from bag taxes can provide a source of funding for environmental projects. They need all the help they can get, right?
Is There A Downside?
- Unfair burden on the poor. Some argue that a plastic bag ban or a bag tax places an unfair burden upon an area’s poor population. For wealthier individuals who drive themselves where they need to go, it is not difficult to keep reusable bags on hand; however, those relying solely upon public transportation to go about their daily activities find it more difficult to keep reusable bags at the ready. For this reason, some posit that the poor end up bearing the burden for the environmental goals of the wealthy. However, reusable grocery bags easily fold and fit inside of a purse or backpack and are, in fact, sturdier than the plastic bags used today. Wouldn’t that characteristic make reusable bags a more attractive choice for traveling with heavy groceries on public transit? Also, at five cents per bag, estimates place yearly costs under $20 for the average individual – not an extraordinarily large cost for the environmental benefits gained.
- Higher costs to businesses. Still others argue that a required shift to paper increases costs for businesses, lowering profits and potentially causing an increase in unemployment. Again, I believe the increased costs would likely be only marginal.
- Eliminates jobs. Some point out that banning plastic bags could eliminate an entire sector of American manufacturing that employs 30,000 people. However, a nationwide ban would more than likely result in a shift from plastic bag production to paper or reusable bag production domestically, offsetting some – if not all – of these jobs.
- Paper bags may not be much better. Finally, many argue that paper bags are actually more resource intensive to produce and provide little more energy than plastic bags when recycled. In fact, paper bags do result in more energy use, solid waste, air pollutants, and water pollutants than plastic bags; but paper bags can decompose within just a few weeks and can also be composted. In response to this, I must say that the real goal of these bans is to promote the use of reusable totes, not necessarily to mandate a switch to paper bags. However, as bags must be made available in the store for those without reusable bags, paper presents an option with a much shorter environmental legacy.
For more on the pros and cons of plastic bag bans, check out this NPR interview.
Personally, I think that giving up plastic bags is a small price to pay to reduce litter, landfill clutter, and ecological damage. We need something in which to carry our groceries and other purchases, but why does that have to be a plastic bag? As long as I have a convenient way to carry my things, I’m happy.
What do you think of plastic bag bans? Burden or easy adjustment?