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Plastic Bag Bans Might Do More Harm Than Good

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2019

Yesterday I wrote about a Vancouver store offering plastic bags with embarrassing messages on them to encourage customers to use their own bags for their groceries. Under new laws that took effect on June 1, stores in the city must stop offering paper/plastic bags or charge for them.

NPR’s Planet Money team pulled some research together that suggests that banning plastic bags might do more harm than good (at least in the short term).

Taylor found these bag bans did what they were supposed to: People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. “What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned,” she says. This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect.

Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.

The waste issue is better, but paper bag production increases carbon emissions. And tote bags, particularly those made from cotton, aren’t great either.

The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.