If We Ban Plastic Bags, Won’t We Just Use More Paper?


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Dear EarthTalk: How effective have plastic bag bans and restrictions been on reducing plastic litter and other problems associated with their proliferation? And is it really better to use paper bags, which will just lead to more deforestation?

Plastic bags, first introduced in the 1950s as a convenient way to store food, have since developed into a global scourge, littering roadsides, clogging sewer drains and landfills and getting ingested by animals and marine life. And in recent years we’ve discovered how they are so prolific that they now comprise a significant portion of the plastic and other garbage that has collected in huge ocean gyres far from land.

A few countries around the world – Bangladesh, China, India, Australia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan and Mumbai, among others – have taken stands against plastic bags through taxing their usage or banning them outright. The environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, reports that China’s decision to ban free plastic bags in 2008 has cut demand by some 40 billion bags, reduced plastic bag usage there by 66 percent, and saved some 1.6 million tons of petroleum.

In March 2007, San Francisco became the first (and is still the only) major U.S. city to implement an across-the-board ban on plastic bags. Large supermarkets and pharmacies there had to ditch plastic shopping bags by early 2008 in favor of paper bags or those made from all-natural biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic. Environmentalists are particularly fond of the latter option for those who don’t bring their own grocery bags, as these cornstarch bags offer the biodegradability of paper without the deforestation as well as the convenience of plastic without the damage to ecosystems. San Francisco officials had originally tried to work with retailers on reducing plastic bag use voluntarily. But after a few years of little or no cooperation, they decided to just institute the ban on anything but biodegradable bags. The result has been a 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect.

Los Angeles followed suit and its city council voted in 2008 to ban plastic bags beginning in July 2010 – but the ban will only take effect if the state of California doesn’t follow through on a statewide plan to impose a fee on shoppers who request plastic bags. City council members in L.A. hope the ban will spur consumers to carry their own reusable bags and thus reduce the amount of plastic washing into the city’s storm drains and into the Pacific Ocean. Several other U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, have considered outright bans like San Francisco’s, but each settled instead on plastic bag recycling programs in the face of pressure from the plastics industry and retail commercial interests.

While increased demand for paper bags in the wake of plastic bag bans could lead to more deforestation, most paper grocery bags in use today are made from recycled content, not virgin wood. Also, an added benefit of paper over petroleum-based plastic is its biodegradability.

Americans go through some 92 billion disposable plastic bags each year, and only five billion paper ones. If the nation banned plastic bags it is likely that paper varieties would only make up a small part of the difference, in light of the proliferation of reusable canvas shopping bags as well as the availability of biodegradable cornstarch plastic.

CONTACT: Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, c/o E The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Photo from Shutterstock

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  1. No question for me that plastic bans need to be widespread. I use my own bags mostly, but dont *really* mind papper bags or cardboard boxes. Paper biodegrades (at least most types)and trees can grow back (eventually). I am not saying that deforestation does not occur, I see a lot of destruction from nearby paper mills and in the Nat’l Forests, but maybe if there were fewer plastic factories, etc there would be more room to replant trees. Plastic is here to stay, as that pic and the gyres show us. I think it is ridiculous that if so many other countries and cities have made the change, see the problem w/ plastic bags, we can even question it.

  2. I support the discontinued use of plastic completely. Grant you – glass ketchup bottles are heavy. Glass anything is heavy. So, be smart. Get your own shopping bags, stop using plastic produce bags (they’re pointless anyways), avoid overpackaged products. If you do require something that only comes in plastic, make sure you can re-use the container. Example, peanut butter. Very few make their own. So, if it comes down to a choice of peanut butter in an opaque jar, or peanut butter in a clear jar, buy the clear one. At least you’ll be able to re-use the clear one around the house. Nuts, bolts, screws, perfect storage for little bits and pieces. It’s all a matter of choice.

  3. I have to join the chorus of the other comments. I think getting rid of plastic bags are a no-brainer. If offices in our country recycled most of their paper it would provide more than enough recycled content to perpetually fund a supply of paper bags–which can also be recycled. The negative effects of plastic bags far outweigh any of their benefits.

    Of course, the true migration is a societal shift to just carrying reusable bags. It may take some time, but people will hopefully get there.

  4. Just to clarify, the “across-the-board” ban of plastic bags in San Francisco applies to the large grocery and pharmacy retailers ONLY. Walk into most small mom-and-pop retailers or food establishments, and chances are that your purchase will be swept into a plastic bag. The cashiers have it down. No thinking or pause required.

    It is only with practice and by making conscious decisions that we can change our individual habits…and hopefully impact those of others.

  5. I live in a place that considers it un-American to ban plastic bags. The other day I saw a man buy a jug of bleach – with a handle – and box a pizza and have each put in its own plastic bag. On the plus side, though, I was at Walgreens and the girl at the register asked me if I wanted a bag before mindlessly stuffing my single small box into one. When I thanked her, she said that they have been told to ask before bagging. A small step, but at least it’s a step.

  6. The title of this post is similar to the question: if bottled water is banned won’t people just turn to other, less healthy alternatives that are also packaged in plastic bottles (i.e. soda)? And some say that people will go for the alternative, which is just as bad, while others say the opposite. What do you think?

    I wrote an article on the bottled water ban recently that addresses this idea. Feel free to read it and comment here: http://www.filtersfast.com/blog/index.php/2010/05/should-your-school-ban-bottled-water/. We’d love for you to take part in the debate and help spread awareness! I think buying reusable containers is a great idea.

  7. Interesting. I was just working in Fort MacMurray, Alberta, Canada. The center of “dirty oil, the worst enviromental threat to the planet ever, etc, etc”. The city has also banned single use plastic bags of any kind within city limits. As far as I know, this is the only city in Canada to do so.

  8. Toronto, Ontario just passed the bylaw that stores will no longer be using plastic shopping bags.

    I’m old enough to remember when everyone had a “slop pail” under the sink, or in the porch, with which to dispose of wet garbage (meats, grease, etc.) Then it was dumped in a pile “out back”. Peelings, dish water, laundry water, etc. were thrown out on the garden. How many of you are willing to go back to that? Is it even feasible anymore? Or are you going to install a garburetor? How well do they work? Will we be able to dispose of all wet garbage with one?

    I throw away very few plastic bags from stores. They are either used as garbage bags in my household container, or the ones with holes are used for a multitude of other uses. So they at least are used a minimum of 2 times.
    I’ve always believed in recycling, but in our area, we can no longer recycle ANY plastics. One grocery store does take back their plastic bags for recycling. So if I can no longer get plastic bags from stores for my garbage can, then that means I’ll have to buy them. Ka-ching to the manufacturers! Cloth shopping bags are great, but how many people make sure that they are carefully washed out after carrying dairy, fish, meats, eggs, etc.? I’ve often suggested that grocery stores make use of cardboard shipping boxes for grocery….especially for those of us who ask for them. They won’t, you know why? They take up too much storage area near the check-outs! One of the grocery stores in our small town does do this…they have a huge bin by the check-outs and anyone can make use of this handy way to carry grocery home.

    I’ve worked for retail clothing stores. Are you aware that almost EVERY item that is sent to stores is encased in plastic? It’s a major task to unwrap every item, and all that plastic goes in the garbage. Why not ban that ridiculous waste? It’s a crying shame to see the bags and bags OF bags being thrown to the land-fill!

    Another thing….how about banning all the plastic food containers that contain possible carcinogens? It’s a sure bet that most of them end up in the landfill too! How many of you cut up the plastic rings holding your beer or pop cans, so they don’t go to the landfill, or end up in rivers or oceans, to trap unsuspecting wildlife?
    Plastic store bags are only the tip of the iceberg! This world is drowning in plastic!

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