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Why plastic bag bans are failing

OpinionWhy plastic bag bans are failing

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Thirteen states across the country have enacted bans on “single-use” plastic bags, with upwards of 500 cities doing the same. More could be on the way.

Environmental groups claim that these bags are difficult to recycle, contaminate oceans and therefore our food source, and can take 1,000 years to biodegrade. According to the Sierra Club, we could be ingesting up to a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.

States and municipalities began passing bills in order to cut down on plastic waste, with the idea that forcing consumers to alter their shopping habits would somehow save the planet. Plenty of organizations tout these bans as a success. But data suggests otherwise.

shopper with plastic bags

A shopper carries goods in plastic bags near a sign promoting a plastic bag-free shopping experience. (Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images)

Market-research organization Freedonia Group recently reported that New Jersey’s plastic consumption has tripled since their ban went into effect in 2022. The non-woven polypropylene bag customers purchased as an alternative not only use 15 times more plastic but is a material not widely recycled in the United States. 

CALIFORNIA PLASTIC BAG BAN LED TO MORE PLASTIC WASTE, CONSUMER ADVOCACY GROUP CLAIMS

The increased manufacturing of this material for bags contributed to a 500% increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And plenty of them are ending up in landfills, completely counterproductive to what is trying to be accomplished.

New Jersey residents have been buying quite a few of these alternative bags, either because they forget them at home, or they are increasingly using grocery delivery and pickup options which require purchasing them with each order. The retailers are raking in profits. A typical store can make $200,000 annually per location from these bag sales. 

Shopper carrying reusable plastic bags

A shopper leaves a story with their goods in reusable plastic bags. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images )

On the West Coast, California’s bag-banning failure is not going unnoticed. The New York Times reported that last year that the Golden State threw away more plastic bags, by weight, than when the law first passed. And the Los Angeles Times reported that the tonnage of discarded plastic bags had jumped 47%. Even accounting for changes in population, the number rose from 4.08 tons per 1,000 people in 2014 to 5.89 tons per 1,000 people in 2022.

BLUE STATE’S BAG BAN MEANT TO PROTECT ENVIRONMENT BACKFIRES AT STAGGERING RATE: STUDY

Apparently, California left a loophole in its legislation, allowing for thicker reusable plastic bags to be purchased with the intent that they would only account for a small percentage of sales and would be re-used multiple times. Such was not the case. These heavier bags still ended up in landfills, in large quantities, and taking up even more space than their thinner predecessors.

New Jersey thought they had learned from California’s mistake by eliminating any such loophole, yet their plans still backfired.

Man sitting next to plastic shopping bags

A man sits on a bench beside plastic shopping bags. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty images )

But loophole or not, when single-use bag regulations are in place – whether by total elimination or fees – sales of plastic trash bags significantly increase. This is because people often reuse single-use grocery bags as trash liners. And when that option is no longer available to them, they are forced to purchase actual trash bags.

US GROCERY CHAIN ELIMINATING PLASTIC SHOPPING BAGS FROM ALL STORES

Then there is the safety issue.

It has been found that the reusable bags purchased by customers can be contaminated with bacteria. A 2011 study discovered various harmful bacteria in 99% of the reusable bags tested; all the disposable bags in the sample came out clean. In 2012, nine members of a soccer team contracted a virus from coming into contact with a reusable bag that had been stored in a bathroom.

Photo shows person holding plastic bags after shopping

When single-use bag regulations are in place, sales of plastic trash bags significantly increase. (Reuters/Jeenah Moon )

These reusable bags tend to travel, from public transit to restrooms to unkempt homes. And then they are brought back into stores that sell items the public puts in their mouths. The whole practice is not exactly sanitary.

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The extra expense is brutal, too. Consumers are already burdened with the highest inflation we’ve seen in decades. Charging them per plastic bag or forcing them to purchase the multi-use totes on top of already high grocery bills can place an additional financial hardship on many Americans.

Numerous life cycle assessments of single-use plastic bags versus alternatives demonstrate that the thin, single-use bags require less energy and water to manufacture and produce less pollution and less solid waste in landfills than alternatives. Plastic bag bans are not beneficial for the environment.

woman shopping in store

Consumers are already burdened with the highest inflation we’ve seen in decades. (iStock)

Studies show that the biggest polluters of plastic waste come from Asia, particularly China. The U.S. only contributes a mere 1%. While that is perhaps 1% too much, for the significant size and population, the U.S. has relatively good waste management.

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Instead of placing bans on plastics, policy should focus on improving all waste management strategies from coast to coast. Particular attention should be placed on assisting our allies overseas who have not developed proper and effective ways to accomplish this task.

In the meantime, let consumers decide which grocery-toting method works best for their needs.

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