Plastic bags: The bans are spreading
A global movement to “bag plastic bags” is gathering momentum, said Joseph Curtin in The New York Times. New York state last week imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags—due to take effect March 1, 2020—joining with California and more than two dozen counties and dozens of cities across America that either prohibit them outright or charge a fee for their use. It’s about time. One estimate shows the average American throws away 10 such bags per week. In New York state, 23 billion a year are chucked—enough “when tied together, to stretch to the moon and back 13 times.”
The effect of discarded bags on marine life can be staggering, said the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger in an editorial. When they are dropped as litter or blow off garbage piles, they often wind up in storm drains or waterways. The bags then flow to the ocean, where sea creatures like turtles mistake them for jellyfish or some other food. Just consider the beached whale that washed up in the Philippines last month with 88 pounds of plastic in its gizzard. With humans dumping up to 13 million metric tons of plastic waste into the world’s oceans annually, how many other sea creatures are we needlessly killing?
Yes, but the alternatives to plastic also have environmental costs, said Brad Plumer in The New York Times. Paper bags, which are made from pulped, cut-down trees, require “significantly more” energy to produce than plastic—and thus leave a much larger carbon footprint. In fact, Britain’s Environmental Agency has found that you have to reuse a paper bag three times and a cotton shopping bag 131 times before these options have “a smaller global warming impact” than one single-use plastic bag. Don’t forget that many plastic bags have “unseen second lives—as trash bin liners, dog poop bags, and storage receptacles,” said Rebecca Taylor in TheConversation.com. My research in California, which passed a statewide ban in 2016, found that the law did, indeed, reduce plastic carryout bag usage by 40 million pounds per year. Unfortunately, it also led to a 12 million–pound boom in trash bag sales, and perhaps an additional increase in sales of poop bags. This suggests that charging a small fee for plastic bags might be more effective than a ban, since it provides an option for those who don’t throw them away after one use. Sometimes, “bans can backfire.” ■