On Nov. 8, 2016, Californians voted to ban plastic bags throughout the state. Though the margins were close, the result was nevertheless celebrated by environmental organizations and community groups as a major victory. Since then, the plastic bag ban debate has spread and cities across the country are implementing city-wide bans and even placing taxes on plastic bags.
Over 200 counties and municipalities, plus the U.S. territories of American Samoa and Puerto Rico, have their own bans in place. But currently, only California and Hawaii have state-wide bans on single-use plastic bags.
If the country’s largest economy has adapted to a bag-less lifestyle, should other states follow suit? To answer that question, we’ll examine the arguments on both sides of the debate.
Those in favor of banning plastic bags argue that it would be one of the most effective ways to reduce the volume of plastic waste in the ocean. This would have major health benefits for both sea life and humans.
According to EcoWatch, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments, including grocery bags, are washed out to sea in the Los Angeles area every day. Once in the ocean, those fragments break down into smaller, nearly microscopic pieces that are consumed by sea life, contaminating the food chain from the bottom up.
“I think it goes without saying that plastics (bags included) are an enormous problem in terms of litter, mostly because plastic trash is ubiquitous, and plastic does not decay in a lifetime,” says Elizabeth Mullen Matteson, founder of The Litter Project. “The amount of plastic litter just grows and grows, especially in our oceans. This is terribly dangerous to the ecosystems that provide food to billions of people.”
A study conducted in 2015 by researchers at UC Davis found that one quarter of fish sold at California markets contained whole or fibrous plastic in their stomachs. Further research is needed to confirm whether the chemicals found in plastic can transfer to the parts of fish most frequently eaten by people.
Unlike reusable cotton bags, plastic bags can take many lifetimes to biodegrade. Over that time, their light weight allows them to be carried long distances, causing environmental havoc along the way.
“Exactly what happens to a plastic bag when it is littered depends very much on where it enters the environment and the mechanisms that cause it to travel,” says Patrick Chandler, Education Director for The Washed Ashore Project. “On a rainy day in Portland, the bag could be washed into a drainage pipe that would lead it to the Columbia River and into the ocean. On a windy day in Arizona, the bag might get stuck on a cactus where it is held until it photodegrades.”
But no matter where a bag ends up, Chandler explains that it can cause long-term harm to the surrounding eco-system. “The bag will exist in the environment for years because plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Exactly how many years and how that plays out again depends on where it starts and where it ends up.”
“One reason why plastic bags have become such an ecological burden is our way of dealing with them at the end of their lifetime,” says Sara Slavikova, co-founder of Greentumble. “We keep producing more and more, but did not implement efficient recycling programs – particularly because their recycling is difficult.”
Plastic bags cannot be sorted from other materials by the machinery at recycling facilities, so they often get stuck in conveyor belts, jam equipment and delay the entire sorting system. This means that plastic bags don’t belong in curbside recycling bins.
Some grocery stores provide collection bins to properly recycle your plastic bags, but it’s easy for shoppers to forget to bring them back.
Reusable alternatives are a major focus of the plastic ban debate. But how eco-friendly are reusable shopping bags in comparison to plastic bags? A study by the Environmental Agency of England showed that a reusable cotton shopping bag must be used 173 times before it’s as environmentally friendly as a plastic shopping bag. Producing the cotton for these bags can generate 300 times the amount of water pollution compared to plastic bag production. And when the fertilizer used for growing the cotton runs off into rivers, there is potential for contamination.
A related argument for keeping plastic bags in checkout lanes involves their convenience. For retailers, they are cheap, easy to store and transport, and simple to open and fill. And many grocery shoppers reuse plastic bags in various ways, from lining their bathroom garbage pails to packing belongings when moving to a new home.
Convenience, however, is not the only argument against banning plastic bags. As it turns out, the companies that manufacture the bags themselves, such as Formosa Plastics and Novolex, employ thousands of people in plants and factories across the U.S. Every new plastic bag ban, critics argue, raises the risk of widespread layoffs. Plus, plastic bags manufactured at these factories are often more environmentally friendly to produce than their biodegradable plastic or paper alternatives.
On top of that, some stores in areas with anti-plastic bag ordinances have noticed a decrease in sales – shoppers are limited to purchasing only what will fit inside their reusable bags. As a result, some stores are unable to hire more people.
Have you ever unloaded your groceries to find your juicy steak bagged with your bananas? Or maybe a few eggs cracked on the ride home?
While fabric bags are great for transporting dry foods, they can be quick to absorb messes, leading to undesirable odors and potential for bacteria growth. To avoid these inconveniences and reduce the risk of contamination, many shoppers request separate plastic bags for certain items at the checkout.
Sara Slavikova from Greentumble explains that “plastic bags and wrapping overall have become widely accepted. It is approved as a standard (hygienic) packaging material.”
In the wake of California’s plastic bag law, many other states have waded into the debate. Several states in the Northeast, including Massachusetts and New York, have legislation pending that would add a fee or outright ban the use of lightweight plastic bags. On the other hand, some states, including Arizona and Florida among others, have laws in place that disallow municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags.
Despite opposition, the movement to ban the bag is gaining momentum in legislatures across the country, with advocates citing the success of California’s plastic bag law as a sign that other states can get rid of plastic bags without harming local economies or businesses.
But for now, most of us still have to answer that age-old question: “Will that be paper or plastic?”
Editor's Note: This post was originally published May 5, 2017 and was updated Feb. 7, 2018 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.