On Nov. 8, 2016, California voters decided to ban plastic bags throughout the state, by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. Though the margins were close, the result was nevertheless celebrated by environmental organizations and community groups as a major victory.
The statewide plastic bag ban came as a surprise to some California communities. In the days following the vote, grocery store shoppers in Sacramento suddenly found themselves with the choice of either paying 10 cents for recycled paper bags or forgoing bags altogether. But despite the surprise in some areas, most Californians had already adapted to life without plastic bags. Before the referendum, roughly 150 cities and counties across the state had bans on the books, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
If the country’s largest economy can adapt to a bag-less lifestyle, what is stopping the rest of the U.S. from following suit? To answer that question, we must first examine the arguments on both sides of the debate.
The main arguments for keeping plastic bags in the checkout lane revolve around their convenience. They are easy to store, transport and are easy to open up and fill up. In addition, many grocery shoppers have grown used to keeping a couple dozen plastic bags handy for cleaning up after pets or using as impromptu trash bags.
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 individuals in plants and factories across the U.S. And every new plastic bag ban, critics argue, raises the risk of widespread layoffs.
On the other side of the debate, those in favor of banning plastic bags argue that doing so would reduce the increasingly large volume of plastic waste in the ocean. According to EcoWatch, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments, including grocery bags, are washed out to see in the Los Angeles area every day. Once in the ocean, those fragments break down into smaller, nearly microscopic, pieces that are consumed by all manner of sea life, contaminating the food chain from the bottom up.
“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, an organization that cleans up ocean debris and uses it to create works of art. “On a rainy day in Portland, the bag could be washed into a drainage 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.
“There’s no simple answer, but what is true is that 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 thing that is for sure is that 8 to 9 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans every year, and not all of it floats. "Perhaps the most well known marine debris plastic bag issue is that seat turtles mistake them for jellyfish," says Patrick. "A study published in 2015 estimated that over half of all individual sea turtles had ingested plastic."
Another study conducted in 2015 by researchers at UC Davis also found that one quarter of fish sold at California markets contained whole or fibrous plastic in their stomachs. However, further research is required to determine whether the chemicals found in plastic can transfer to the parts of fish most frequently eaten by people – think filets.
Currently, only California, Hawaii and the U.S. territories of American Samoa and Puerto Rico ban single-use plastic bags, though over 200 counties and municipalities have their own bans in place. In the wake of California’s plastic bag law, numerous states have waded into the debate by introducing their own legislation on the matter.
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. Yet in other states, legislation has focused on maintaining the status quo, including a curious ban on plastic bag bans (preventing local and regional governments from doing so) enacted by the state of Michigan last December. Similar bans already exist in Arizona, Idaho, Florida and Missouri, with the stated intent of preventing patchwork regulations from hamstringing local businesses.
Despite opposition, the movement to ban the bag is gaining momentum, 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 and businesses. But for now, most of us still have to answer that age-old question: “Will that be paper or plastic?”