Are Plastic Bag Bans Good Environmental Policy?

There has been a wave of legislation in 2013 regarding the banning of single-use plastic shopping bags. Los Angeles has become the largest city with a plastic bag ban; starting in 2014 all plastic bags will be banned and there will be a 10 cent fee for paper bags starting with large stores and phasing in smaller retailers later in the year.

A state-wide ban in California failed by a narrow margin and will likely be seen again. California has been leading the way on this issue for many years; in 2007, San Francisco became the first city to approve a plastic ban. Other cities with a ban in place include Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, every county in Hawaii, and many smaller cities, and the number is only continuing to grow. Plastic bags are not biodegradable, and plastic in general is the most common type of marine litter, causing harm to many types of wildlife. In addition, some colored plastic bags are known to contain toxins such as lead. 

Opponents claim that plastic bans negatively impact low-income people the most, which Los Angeles will counter by distributing reusable bags to the poorest areas of the city. However, many other issues have been raised regarding these bans. Plastic bag bans have been linked to an increase in shoplifting as people carrying items in reusable bags throughout the store and simply walk out with them. Questions have also been raised as to whether or not reusable bags are actually better for the environment. While paper bags are definitely worse for the environment than plastic in terms of production, some types of reusable bags, such as cotton or polyester, may be worse for the environment as well. Ultimately, reusable bags are only better if they are consistently reused, usually over one hundred times. If we can’t count on people to reuse their bags, banning plastic bags might not be the solution to our environmental woes.