With communities more aware than ever of the blight of shredded plastic bags hanging in trees and power lines and the mass of plastics floating in the ocean, plastic-bag bans are spreading across the United States.
Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova of the Earth Policy Institute report, “Los Angeles rang in the 2014 New Year with a ban on the distribution of plastic bags at the checkout counter of big retailers, making it the largest of the 132 cities and counties around the United States with anti-plastic bag legislation.”
More than 20 million Americans now live in communities with plastic-bag bans or fees for their use.
The Earth Policy Institute says that “currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.”
The Institute expects that number to fall as more cities like New York and Chicago add themselves to the plastic-bag banners
Plastic bags have only been around since the 1962, and we have Sweden to thank for their invention. In the 1970’s Mobil Oil promoted plastic bags “in an attempt to increase its market for polyethylene, a fossil-fuel-derived compound.”
Here in the United States, the bags were introduced in 1976. They were not popular at first because many were “disgusted by the checkout clerks having to lick their fingers when pulling the bags from the rack and infuriated when a bag full of groceries would break or spill over.”
Today we are returning to bringing our own bags and baskets as our ancestors did, in the interest of resource efficiency.
Still, the Earth Policy Institute reports that more than “one third of all plastic production is for packaging, designed for short-term use. Plastic bags are made from natural gas or petroleum that formed over millions of years, yet they are often used for mere minutes before being discarded to make their way to a dump or incinerator—if they don’t blow away and end up as litter first.”
The amount of energy, the institute says, required to make a dozen plastic bags is enough to drive a car for a mile.
Sadly, plastic shreds and is unsightly, but does not fully decompose. It breaks into ever smaller polluting pieces that recent studies show actually soak “up additional pollutants like pesticides and industrial waste that are in the ocean and delivers them in large doses to sea life.”
Of course, many, including people, eat sea life. “Plastics and the various additives that they contain have been tied to a number of human health concerns, including disruption of the endocrine and reproductive systems, infertility, and a possible link to some cancers,” Larsen and Venkova write.
Nantucket, MA., a small seasonal tourist town, was the very first U.S. town to ban "non-biodegradable plastic bags in 1990. Facing a growingwaste disposal problem, the town envisioned building a facility where as much material as possible could be diverted from the landfill to be recycled or composted; such a facility would only be able to accept biodegradable bags."
San Francisco was the first major U.S. city to ban “non-compostable plastic bags from large supermarkets and chain pharmacies in 2007.” San Francisco plans to reach “zero waste” by 2020 and now already diverts 80 percent of its trash to recyclers or composters instead of landfills. It extended the bag ban to all stores and restaurants in 2012 and 2013.
“Recipients of recycled paper or compostable bags are charged at least 10ȼ, but—as is common in cities with plastic bag bans—bags for produce or other bulk items are still allowed at no cost.”
San Francisco bans are among the most stringent. It also bans polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) food containers, “and it has gone a step further against disposable plastic packaging by banning sales of water in plastic bottles on city property.” So, in San Francisco, it’s BYO reusable water bottle.
California at 39 million people is larger in population than Canada. One-third of Californians now live in areas with plastic-bag bans.
Retail bag sales have dropped from “107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012.” So it is no surprise that ordinances old and new “have faced lawsuits from plastics industry groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC).” It is also no surprise that plastic-bag bans have had a tough go in Texas where many of the bag manufacturers are.
Larsen and Venkova write, “Even though the laws have largely held up in the courts, the threat of legal action has deterred additional communities from taking action and delayed the process for others.” They add, “Ironically, were it not for the intervention of the plastics industry in the first place,California would likely have far fewer outright plastic bag bans. Instead, more communities might have opted for charging a fee per bag, but this option was prohibited as part of industry-supported statewide legislation in 2006 requiring Californian grocery stores to institute plastic bag recycling programs.”
In 2010, California came close to introducing a statewide plastic-bag ban but was thwarted by “well-funded industry lobbyists.” The California Grocers Association is supporting a new bill that will be up for vote in 2014.
Seattle’s story is similar. It took from 2008 to 2012, for Seattle to succeed in passing its own bag-banning ordinance that also charges five cents for the use of paper bags. (Note that many vendors like Trader Joe’s offer five-cent per bag discounts to those customers who bring their own bags. Like many vendors, including Safeway and Target, Trader Joe’s has a variety of reusable bags for sale near the checkout counters.)
Eleven other Washington-state jurisdictions have also banned plastic bags, including the state capital, Olympia.
The Earth Policy Institute reports that “Austin banned plastic bags in 2013, hoping to reduce the more than $2,300 it was spending each day to deal with plastic bag trash and litter. The smaller cities of Fort Stockton and Kermit banned plastic bags in 2011 and 2013, respectively, after ranchers complained that cattle had died from ingesting them. Plastic bags have also been known to contaminate cotton fields, getting caught up in balers and harming the quality of the final product. Plastic pollution in the Trinity River Basin, which provides water to over half of all Texans, was a compelling reason for Dallas to pass a five-cent fee on plastic bags that will go into effect in 2015.”
Washington, D.C., food and alcohol retailers charge five cents for each bag -- plastic or paper. The fee goes partly to pay for cleanup of the Anacostia River. A survey found that 90 percent of businesses were positive or neutral about the law; 80 percent of shoppers bring their own bags. In 2011, nearby Montgomery County, Md., followed D.C.’s example.
The plastics industry has urged bag recycling; however, where offered, only three percent of bags make it to recycling. Sadly, the lightweight bags sometimes blow out of collection bins and become unintended litter. Recycling facilities don’t like when bags are mixed with other plastics because they jam and damage sorting machines. “In San Jose, California, where fewer than 4 percent of plastic bags are recycled, repairs to bag-jammed equipment cost the city about $1 million a year before the plastic bag ban went into effect in 2012.”
New York may succeed in passing a bill that would charge 10 cents a bag. Chicago is also considering a ban.