Plastic bags were introduced in the U.S. by way of Sweden in 1979. By the end of the 1980s, they were everywhere, leaving the paper grocery bag in the dust. Today, two million of them are used per minute — and that’s a low estimate. Consider whether you’ve already used one today — the chances are pretty high.
Light and durable, plastic bags are found in trees, landfills, and waterways, inside animals and the deepest reaches of the oceans. This we know — it is daily news that the world has a plastic pollution problem. What may not be as familiar is the tug-of-war between parties for and against the use of plastic bags.
In 2019, plastic makers and consumer goods companies have committed to spending over $1 billion on initiatives to help reduce waste but “maintain the critical benefits” of plastics.
Let’s follow the bills (and $ bills) in this fight for, and against, the #1 consumer item in the world.
Where Plastic Comes From
One of the main arguments for the use of plastic is that it’s cheap — in part that is because plastic a petroleum byproduct. As natural gas is extracted from the ground, so are gases like ethane, which is needed to produce 99% of plastics. This extraction process is called fracking: using high-pressure liquids to create cracks in the rock and allow oil and gas to flow freely.
Fracking has become a point of contention, as environmental groups are looking to fight plastic from its inception. In Florida this year, the Senate passed a bill that banned some forms of the practice, but environmental groups insist there is still a loophole that harms the environment. Meanwhile, just last week, the Oregon Senate approved a temporary five-year ban on fracking.
Where Plastic Ends Up
Plastic proponents point to reuse and recycle as solutions to the glut.
In 2015 only 9% of all plastic waste was recycled.
(This astonishing fact was featured as the Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Year in 2018.) And when bags do make it to the recycling facility, they tend to clog or ‘gum up’ the machines during the sorting process.
An increasingly popular alternative to recycling plastic bags is Waste-to-Energy (WTE), the practice of burning mixed waste and capturing the energy generated for use in the power grid. WTE is highly toxic, releasing chemicals into the air and posing health risks to local communities.
Incinerating unsorted waste also deprioritizes materials recovery and keeps the packaging industry reliant on ‘virgin’ versus recycled post-consumer plastics.
Bans and taxes on single-use plastic bags have been in place for decades. Africa leads the way, with 34 countries participating in some capacity. In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to enact an outright ban, and in 2014, California became the first state to do so, also requiring a 10-cent fee for paper, reusable, or compostable alternatives in some cases.
New York followed suit this year, and Hawaii has a de facto statewide ban, spreading at the county level. Click here for a complete list of active single-use plastic bag bans.
As of July 2018, 127 nations have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.
According to a 2019 review, bans and taxes have led to sharp declines in bag usage: 66% in Denmark and up to 90% in Ireland. In the UK, the number of plastic bags found in the surrounding sea has declined so sharply, it serves as evidence of the measure’s success. Ministers have since considered similar tactics for disposable cups and bottles.
The Bans on Bans
On the other side of the ban debate, the assertion is that banning bags is bad for businesses. The anti-ban supporters assert that using plastic bags reduces costs. Special interest groups are lobbying actively: in 2009, the American Chemistry Council spent $1.5 million to defeat a bag-fee law in Seattle. In 2016, the American Progressive Bag Alliance raised over $6 million to defeat California’s Prop 67. (Prop 67 passed anyway, effectively banning plastic bags across the state.) Associations like Pack2Go Europe are challenging documented and effective ban successes like Ireland’s.
As recently as April 2019, Ohio Republicans introduced a bill seeking to preempt taxation and regulation on “auxiliary containers,” including plastic bags. If passed, the bill would invalidate local bans already in effect.
Industry groups often use very costly environmental-impact statements (EIS) to halt anti-bag ordinances, and sometimes resort to suing communities. This threat can be enough to stop ordinances from going through, but, as with the case of Prop 67 and others, it may not be enough.
The fight over plastic continues: the Flexible Packaging Association has commissioned studies on plastic’s sustainability (and its lobbying expenses have doubled). In perhaps a win for either side, the Plastics Industry Association is arguing for improving recycling infrastructure as the solution to plastic pollution.
But in 2019 alone, state lawmakers have introduced at least 95 bills directly addressing plastic bags, most of them introducing bans or fees.
Jennie Romer, the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law, is partial to charging a fee for bags over outright banning them. And though no one wants to pay for something that was once free, case studies show that people accommodate paying the fee. Less often the case in fee-for-bag settings, some switch to bringing their own bags.
It will be interesting to watch the fight play out.