Op-Ed: Plastic Bag Bans Work to Curb Pollution

Plastic bag bans combined with fees for paper bags are potent tools for reducing plastic trash.

Plastic bag bans work in curbing pollution. (Photo: katerha/Creative Commons)

Oct 18, 2012· 2 MIN READ

San Francisco became the first city to ban single-use plastic bags in 2007, and since then dozens of communities have jumped on the plastic bag bans bandwagon. These plastic bag bans help everyone learn to make reusable bags a habit and reduce trash, benefiting the environment and the economy.

If your city is considering plastic bag bans, it’s likely there’s an army of pro-plastic lobbyists working to stop it—and they’ll say anything. San Francisco’s experience offers great lessons.

Starting this month, San Francisco has banned the practice of giving away plastic bags at all retail stores. Stores are required to charge shoppers who don’t provide their own bag a minimum of 10 cents each for a paper or compostable bag. Many local businesses supported these rules, even as plastic industry lawyers sued to stop them, and failed.

Lobbyists have tried to stop plastic bag bans in numerous cities on the grounds that they put the cost on the consumer. We’re already paying for plastic bags through local taxes to combat litter and clean up trash-clogged waterways, and through hidden bag costs added to food and retail prices.

The California Grocers Association supports plastic bag bans because it’s the right thing to do for our environment and reduces costs they otherwise have to pass on to consumers. According to the Association, stores located in cities that charge bag fees report 90 percent of customers bring their own, a clear win for the environment.

The impact of plastic bag bans on the pollution of our rivers, bays and oceans is well documented. Plastic never biodegrades in a marine environment, and it smothers wetlands and chokes wildlife. Even if people are conscientious about not littering, lightweight bags blow out of uncovered garbage cans and into our storm water systems where they enter our waterways. Californians alone use 19 billion plastic bags annually, and at least one million end up in San Francisco Bay.

The plastics industry has managed to beat back some municipal efforts to reduce plastic bag use across the country, pressuring cities to instead adopt weak "recycling encouragement" schemes that haven't made a measurable dent in bag litter. Only a small portion of single-use plastic bags are ever recycled, and recyclers hate them because they clog up their systems and don’t bring in revenue.

The fact is plastic bag bans and fees work to reduce litter. In the first year that Ireland instituted a fee, plastic bag litter dropped by 93 percent and plastic bag use decreased by approximately 90 percent, and these dramatically lower levels of plastic bag use and litter are being sustained.

For 50 years Save the Bay has been fighting pollution and development to protect the Bay. You can work to protect your community too. Take a moment to watch our video, The Bay vs. The Bag. Share the model ordinances working in this region with leaders in your own city, and pledge to resist the plastics industry’s dirty tactics in your community. Learn more here.

Do you own a resuable grocery bag? How would you feel about a plastic bag bans in your area? Tell us in the comments.