Plastic Bag Ban Resources
Here are some more frequently asked questions about bag bans, alternatives, and environmental impact.
ON PLASTIC BAGS:
Question: Are plastic bag bans effective?
Yes, they can be. There have been significant reductions in plastic pollution in cities and states that have banned plastic bags.
Following a bag ban in San Jose, California, there was a 76% reduction in plastic bags found in creeks and rivers and a 69% reduction in plastic bags found in storm drain inlets. In Alameda County, California, a plastic bag ordinance led to a 44% decrease in plastic bags found in county storm drains, and in Washington, D.C., plastic bags in the Anacostia River decreased following a bag policy.
One study — from the United Kingdom’s Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science — measured trends over 25 years and reported significantly fewer plastic bags on the seafloor after several European countries introduced bag fees. The study was based on 39 independent scientific surveys of the distribution of marine pollution on seabeds between 1992 and 2017.
Plastic bag bans should ideally be accompanied by a charge on single-use alternatives, like paper bags, to encourage a transition to reusables instead of prompting shoppers to replace one disposable product with another. Ultimately, we need to shift toward reusable solutions.
Question: Don’t plastic bag bans just encourage people to buy trash bags instead?
Even when you factor in the uptick in trash bag use that has been observed in some places that have enacted plastic bag bans, the net reduction in plastic bag use is still significant.
This argument is referring to a 2019 study that reported that plastic bag bans in California resulted in people buying more plastic trash bags. Study author Rebecca L.C. Taylor found that these bans reduced plastic carryout bag usage by 40 million pounds per year, but that this reduction was offset by an annual 12 million pound increase in trash bag sales. “This meant that 30% of the plastic eliminated by the ban was coming back in the form of trash bags,” Taylor wrote in The Conversation. While a 0% increase in trash bag purchases would of course be preferable, the fact is that there was still a 70% net reduction of plastic bag usage, even when you factor in the uptick in trash bag use.
Question: What if you reuse plastic bags instead of throwing them away after one use?
While reusing bags is preferable to throwing them out after one use, they all still inevitably become an unmanageable part of our planet lasting for hundreds of years after their purpose is served. Instead of degrading, plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that pollute our environment for centuries and harm marine life.
Question: Why are we banning plastic bags when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that only 0.28% of all garbage, by weight, comes from plastic bags?
Weight is a misleading form of measurement here, since plastic bags are lighter than most garbage. They’re one of the most common items polluting our coasts and have devastating effects on marine life.
Plastic bags might not seem significant using weight alone as a measurement (they’re much lighter than other plastic waste), but their effect on the environment is catastrophic. Plastic grocery bags and other miscellaneous plastic bags are consistently among the most collected items in global beach cleanups.
Plastic bags in the ocean may directly result in the starvation, asphyxiation and death of various marine organisms, including sea turtles and marine mammals. Dead whales have increasingly been discovered with plastic bags in their stomachs — over 80 plastic bags were found inside a pilot whale in 2018, and a young female orca was found dead in December 2022 with nothing but a 2.5-foot-long sheet of plastic, plus plastic bags and other plastic debris, in its stomach, Plastic bags also contribute to microplastic debris, as plastic does not degrade in the environment but rather breaks up into smaller pieces.
Question: Won’t fees on paper bags disproportionately impact low-income communities?
Plastic pollution — which can be curbed by policies like charges on plastic bags — is already costing consumers money and disproportionately affecting low-income communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Many bag laws include methods to make reusable bags more accessible for low-income residents. For example, money from Washington, D.C.’s bag tax goes toward the purchase and distribution of tens of thousands of reusable bags to low-income and senior district residents.
Furthermore, consumers are already paying a price for those plastic bags when taxes aren’t in effect. A 2013 report generated on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that California cities, towns and taxpayers are shouldering $428 million per year to collect plastic pollution and keep it out of the natural environment.
It’s also important to note that plastic production and pollution disproportionately affect low-income communities in the U.S. and abroad. According to CIEL, the refining and manufacturing of plastic significantly impacts human health. Communities located in close proximity to plastic production sites and workers employed in the production facilities are particularly at risk due to daily toxic exposure and potential accidents. Because these are typically low-income communities of color, they are generally viewed as “areas of least resistance, where it is likely that people will not have the ability and resources to challenge the industry, even when those industries are likely to negatively impact their environment and health.”
Question: Can’t reusable bags harbor bacteria?
We frequently wash our clothes, sheets, towels, homes, refrigerators and more to maintain a sanitary lifestyle, and reusable bags are no different. They’re easy and safe to wash over and over again, preventing the buildup of bacteria and providing a clean transport for your food.
Question: Isn’t your focus on plastic pollution just drawing attention away from the bigger, more pressing environmental problem of climate change?
It is impossible to fight one problem without considering the other. Climate change and the plastics crisis are intrinsically linked. If plastic was a country, it would be the planet’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Studies have shown that the plastic industry contributes to climate change by using fossil fuels, including petroleum and natural gas, to create plastic, which emits greenhouse gases at every stage of its life, from production and transportation to waste management. This doesn’t stop when plastic enters the marine environment — plastic at the ocean’s surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gases, and these emissions only increase as plastic breaks apart.
With plastic production rates anticipated to increase, so will plastic's effects on our climate — in the U.S., plastic is projected to outpace coal's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Question: Alternatives to plastic, like glass and paper, have negative impacts on the climate. How do you justify advocating for a switch away from plastic if you truly care about the climate?
Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and they are a major contributor to climate change. We can reduce plastic use without worsening climate change by finding alternative ways of delivering products without single-use packaging — reusable and refillable systems are the ideal solution.
First, plastic contributes to climate change: Fossil fuels are used to create almost all plastic, and greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of its life, from extraction and production onward. We are not advocating for alternatives that are bad for the planet. We advocate for finding solutions that reduce plastics and do not worsen climate change. For instance, rather than switching from single-use plastic to a different disposable material, we can reduce the packaging required in the first place. We can also shift to refillable and reusable solutions, something that was done regularly in the past but that we can expand on now.
Second, addressing climate change will require fundamental changes in our society. Once we have a decarbonized transportation system, for example, transporting reusable materials won’t have such a negative impact.
Finally, the life-cycle assessments (LCAs) that contend that plastic has a smaller carbon footprint than its alternatives typically only consider one environmental harm. For instance, it is impossible to weigh plastic’s effects on climate change against its effects on marine life. In addition, these analyses assume that all plastic enters managed waste streams, which we know is untrue — in fact, an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year. These points are omitted in many of the LCAs cited by the plastics industry as proof that plastic is more environmentally friendly than its alternatives. In reality, the total environmental impact of marine plastic pollution has yet to be adequately quantified or assessed.
Question: Wouldn’t improving recycling solve the plastic pollution problem?
Unfortunately, recycling alone is not enough to solve the plastics crisis. Of all the plastic waste ever generated — all 6.9 billion tons of it — only about 9% has been recycled. And much of that was downcycled or shipped to Asia, where it was never really recycled. There is no evidence that recycling can keep up with the fast-growing rate of plastic production.
Not everything that goes into the recycling bin actually gets recycled. Some is disposed of or lost in the recycling process. Some is turned into lower-value products, known as “downcycling.” And some is exported to developing nations with less-robust waste infrastructures, which means the plastic we think is recycled often ends up in a landfill or in the ocean on the other side of the globe. About 12% of our plastic waste has been incinerated, and the large majority of our plastic waste has ended up in landfills or the environment, including our oceans (79%).
Current projections show that increased plastic production will outpace recycling, and if trends continue unchanged, the amount of plastic entering the oceans will continue to increase. Plastic production has far outpaced waste management’s ability to keep up, and that trend will worsen over time, especially considering the plastics industry expects annual production will more than triple by 2050.
Question: Doesn’t incineration already offer a perfect solution to dealing with plastic waste?
Burning plastic waste releases greenhouse gases and other toxic emissions — including known cancer-causing agents, like dioxins — that contaminate our air, soil and water and threaten the health of people, especially those who live near the incinerators.
Additionally, a particular form of incineration known as “waste-to-energy” is often misrepresented to the public as a source of renewable energy — but this is far from the truth. Burning plastic is the same as burning fossil fuels, which are, of course, not renewable.
This false solution to plastic waste distracts attention from needed investments in real renewable and sustainable solutions.
Question: Isn’t single-use plastic the cleanest, most sanitary option for food packaging?
The idea that plastic is “clean” is surprising when you consider where plastic comes from and what it contains. Plastic contains toxic additives that can leach into our food. These chemicals are linked to health effects like cancer, infertility and other diseases.
Plastic can contain different chemical additives for flexibility, rigidity, stability or color, most of which have not been adequately studied for safety. The chemical makeup of many plastics are trade secrets, preventing a thorough assessment of their risks to the environment and to humans, especially plastic handlers and recyclers.
The chemical additives in plastic are prone to leaching out because they’re not tightly bound, meaning that the chemical additives in your meat’s plastic wrap, for example, can leach into your food. Some of the plastic additives have been linked to cancer, reproductive and nervous system disorders, obesity, diabetes, immune suppression and more.