New York made history on March 1, becoming the second state in the country to pass a plastic bag ban. While the ban is state-wide, it is being augmented by localities in different ways; some are providing paper bags as alternatives without a cost or allowing grocery stores like Wegmans to charge a fee per paper bag. In the case of New York City, the ban comes with a five-cent fee for each paper bag sold at grocery and retail stores. The ban is specific to single-use plastics given at the counter and has exceptions, such as those used to contain meat or fish.
The plastic bag ban is a timely effort to curtail plastic waste in the environment. In New York City, plastic bags are seen flying between buildings, caught in trees and littering sidewalks. Of the 23 billion plastic bags discarded in the state annually, New York City contributes 10 billion. With less than 10 percent of them recycled each year, the rest flow into waterways and the ocean, clogging drains, hurting marine life and finding their way back into people’s water and food. While research around microplastics is relatively new, the Washington Post cites that Americans “breathe in tens of thousands of tiny plastic fragments or fibers every year… and ingest at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year.”
Microplastics are the reduced version of plastics, which are non-biodegradable. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an average American family uses 1,500 plastic bags a year with a lifespan of 12 minutes. Yet, this short and convenient use has been responsible for turning the ocean “into a minefield,” according to the National Geographic, impacting approximately 700 species as they are caught in plastic or mistake plastic for food.
While plastic bags have become ubiquitous to daily life, they only started appearing en masse just about 40 years ago. Plastic bags derive from crude oil, which are then heated and converted into polyethylene, a resin that was patented by Celloplast in 1965. Due to their durability and convenience, plastic bags quickly replaced paper ones in consumer markets with particular popularity at grocery stores.
Today, seven other states have passed legislation on banning plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Vermont. Moreover, according to Bag the Ban, a project by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, about 350 local governments have adopted a plastic bag ban, sometimes with up to a 25-cent fee per paper bag. In 2019 alone, the National Conference of State Legislators reported that 95 bag-related bills were introduced, focusing on improving recyclable plastics.
Yet, although many US communities have embraced the plastic bag ban, there’s much more progress to be made. The main argument for skeptics of the ban revolves around whether paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, part of the Plastic Industry Association, endorses plastic bags as being more sustainable than paper bags. The Alliance states that not only do paper bags consume more energy to produce and contribute to deforestation, the majority of single-use plastic bags actually experience a second life. In fact, the ban has been found to cause ‘leakage,’ or increased consumption of an unregulated good as an unintended consequence; in observing the ban in California’s cities and counties, Rebecca Taylor from the University of Sydney School of Economics found that while single-use plastic bags decreased by 40 million pounds per year, there was an offset of 12 million pounds per year, or 29 percent, in small trash bags. Furthermore, sales of small, medium and large garbage bags increased 120, 64, and 6 percent, respectively.
According to UK’s Environmental Agency, to break even with the carbon impact of a plastic bag, on average, a paper bag must be reused at least three times and a cotton bag, 131 times. However, it is critical to note that the two key differentiators between plastic bags and alternatives is that plastic bags are difficult to recycle and are not biodegradable. The lightweight plastic bags not only easily fly out of bins but also easily get stuck to recycling machinery. Moreover, even when a plastic bag is reused, whether it’s as a small trashcan liner or to pick up other waste, it ultimately ends up in a landfill where it remains for centuries.
Ultimately, a ban with an imposed paper bag fee is to further motivate consumers to carry reusable bags. No matter how low the cost, a fee in itself acts as a financial deterrent and also a tipping point for many consumers who were previously on the fence about bringing their own bags. Furthermore, with China’s import ban on recyclables since 2018, according to NPR, the US has not been able to ship approximately 700,000 tons per year of plastic waste. Ill-equipped to handle recyclables, the cost of recycling has increased significantly. Without the finances to enhance capabilities, paper and plastics have been sent to landfills instead.
Though there is no final verdict on which type of bag is least climate intensive, it is clear that plastic bags will remain in and out of landfills for generations. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans. With no sign of plastic consumption slowing down, the increasing adoption of plastic bag bans is a step in the right direction to better protect the environment and is a conscious effort to change single-use consumer behavior.
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