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Why Plastic Bag Bans Work

By Sophie Lewis

By Jon Tyson (@jontyson)


Are single-use plastic bag bans effective? In short, yes. They are effective at reducing the amount of plastic in circulation and thus the amount of plastic that ends up in our landfills and oceans. However, this topic is quite nuanced and has attracted quite a bit of criticism in growing years.


It is no secret that our plastic dependence has become a crisis. Every year around 500 billion plastic grocery bags are used worldwide. There is an estimated 8 million tons of plastic that ends up in the oceans annually. Additionally, according to National Geographic, if the plastic industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest carbon emitter in the world. Yes, the production of these products pollutes our atmosphere and releases toxins into our air, but environmentalists mostly focus on what happens when a plastic bag is discarded. When plastic bags are discarded improperly they pollute waterways, find their way into the oceans and clog sewers. Once they are in the ocean, marine animals may mistake the plastic for food, or get themselves tangled in it.


However, they do not stay there forever. Single use plastic bags only take 20 years to break down–significantly less time than most plastics–but this is not necessarily a good thing. This is because all plastic when it breaks down becomes fragmented particles called microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters in length. They are often ingested by marine animals and seabirds and can cause a multitude of health issues. While plastic bags can be removed from the ocean, microplastics would be almost impossible to remove.


In an effort to curb this pollution in our oceans and reduce the carbon footprint of the plastic industry, many cities, states and counties across the US have begun to ban single-use plastic bags. Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. This is not seen as the solution to quitting our plastic habit and solving ocean pollution, but it can significantly decrease the amount of plastic in circulation.


Despite the success of these efforts, there have been claims that plastic bag bans have unintended consequences on the environment. A 2019 study in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management was concerned that single use plastic bag bans increased the amount of garbage bag sales, resulting in more plastic in circulation. The study found that sales of plastic garbage bags in the state of California did in fact increase post plastic bag ban. However, total plastic usage was still negative and decreased by 70%. This shows how even though plastic garbage bag sales may have increased as a result of the ban, the amount of plastic in general has decreased, which was the goal of the ban and reduces potential future ocean pollution.


Other criticisms of the plastic bag bans say that the bans are unlikely to solve anything and they draw attention away from ‘real’ solutions. In 2018 the nonprofit group Ocean Cleanup produced the most comprehensive report of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” to date. This patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean lies between California and Japan. The study found that the patch is about three times the size of France, which was much bigger than predicted. Additionally, they found that 46% of the trash in the patch was fishnets, not plastic bags, straws, or cups. Critics claim that plastic bag bans are trendy right now and politicians use these to “address” the issue of plastic pollution, without finding or implementing meaningful solutions. While politicians may use these bans to check the environmentally conscious box, they are useful in reducing the amount of plastic in circulation.


The best way for these bans to be successful is to be coupled with other legislation to reduce the amount of plastic being produced and used in order to hinder future ocean pollution. Recent US legislation such as the Save our Seas 2.0 Act of 2020 focuses on recycling and cleaning up plastic. This will not solve the problem and instead mitigates the symptoms of plastic production and use. If there was more legislation that hindered the production and use of single-use plastics, in tandem with the bans already implemented, then it would target the root of the problem, which is the continued use and production of plastic.


Even though banning single use plastic bags may not clean up our oceans, it is certainly a start to reducing the amount of future pollution. It is important for people to start to drop their plastic habit, which means decreasing the amount of it in circulation. So far there are eight states that have banned single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. There have also been 200 counties and municipalities that have enacted ordinances which either impose a fee on plastic bags or ban them altogether.


If you are interested in banning plastic bags in your city or state, there are many steps you can take. The way many of these changes began is by writing letters to or going to talk to local businesses and persuading them to stop using plastic bags. Moreover, you can reach out to local government officials and state representatives to ask for bag ordinances which stop plastic bag usage locally. Finally, ask friends and neighbors to do the same. It may seem small, but with enough support your voice could make a big difference in helping to protect our oceans.


 

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