On Plastic Bag Bans, From an Environmental Perspective

A couple years ago, a ban on single-use plastic bags came into effect in my home state of New York to much fanfare. Now that this ban has been theoretically[1] in effect in my home state for a couple of years now, and now that several other states and municipalities have enacted similar bans over the past several years,[2] I think it is time to honestly evaluate plastic bag bans from an environmental perspective.

I should start by saying that single-use plastics are not what I, or anyone else who cares about the environment, should advocate for. Environmental advocates point out that single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment in a multitude of ways, ranging from impacts on the climate to harming our wildlife.[3] A status quo of single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags (or single-use bags of any kind, for that matter) is simply not sustainable for ourselves, our fellow animals, or our planet in the long-term.

However, when one looks at the environmental impacts of reusable bags, the reality is more complicated than one may realize. Columbia University’s Climate School noted that bags designed to last longer “are made of heavier materials, so they use more resources in production and therefore have greater environmental impacts.”[4] Therefore, bags designed to be reusable need to be reused many times over in order to have a climate footprint equivalent to our traditional single-use plastic bag brethren—50 to 150 times for a cotton bag, 10-20 times for a durable polypropylene (PP) bag, and 5-10 times for a somewhat less durable but still reusable polyethylene (PE) bag.[5]

But, there is a catch—as the United Nations Environment Programme noted, in order to have cotton bags, PP bags, and PE bags with an equivalent environmental footprint to single-use plastic bags, people need to keep on reusing the bags, and the bags themselves need to be durable. Unfortunately, a problem that my family, as well as people around me, have run into is that some bags are not very durable and have a tendency to fall apart before using the bag the number of times we need to in order to make them even environmentally equivalent to single-use plastic bags. I know some people who have used certain reusable plastic bags at least once a week (if not more than that) for years now, in which case the bags they’ve used have ended up being better for the environment than single-use plastic bags. However, I also know some people who’ve seen reusable bags fall apart after being used only on a few occasions.

While I would still not advocate for single-use plastic bags, unfortunately the reality of reusable bags is that it is questionable whether they are better for the environment than the single-use ones. Before drawing conclusions about the overall environmental footprint of various reusable bags in relation to single-use ones, I would personally first like to see how long the average cotton bag, PP bag, and PE bag lasts. If they don’t last the requisite number of times to have an environmental footprint equivalent to single-use plastic bags, then perhaps our traditional plastic bags that we get (or used to get) at grocery stores, as bad as they are, may yet be better for the environment than the reusable bags we’ve resorted to in some municipalities and states.

I will leave my readers with one last thought, a thought that might actually be the inspiration of a future blog post: just because something is reusable doesn’t automatically mean that the thing is good for the environment.


[1] I say “theoretically” because enforcement on the ban has been shaky at best. Here’s a news story about these issues with enforcement: https://www.thecity.nyc/environment/2021/7/26/22595273/nyc-plastic-bag-ban-violators-getting-away-with-breaking-law

[2] The National Conference of State Legislatures notes the states and notable municipalities with various plastic bag bans and fees: https://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx

[3] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101

[4] https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/04/30/plastic-paper-cotton-bags/

[5] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/31932/SUPB.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

14 Replies to “On Plastic Bag Bans, From an Environmental Perspective”

  1. Another issue for me is what to use as garbage bags. To buy biodegradable garbage bags would cost almost 10 times the cost per bag than paying for a single-use plastic bag at the grocery store. The environment is important to me, but on a disability income, it’s hard to justify spending 10x more for garbage bags.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Hmm. I’m extremely surprised that people have so much trouble finding reusable bags that really are reusable. We use ours weekly for a household’s groceries and other things and have no trouble whatsoever. Use them for years with no need for replacement. Why don’t people just identify the good ones and stick with them?

    Like

  3. The country I live in, charges extra for the plastic bags at the grocery shops, which is why, a lot of us bring our own shopping bags when we go out, but, it doesn’t actually, reduce the amount of, trash in the city at all, and, these supposedly reusable bags are, made from materials that may be, even more, harmful to the environment, which defeats the, whole purpose of, being, “environmentally-friendly”…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We have had the same ban now for a couple of years now and for me, the biggest challenge is getting reusable bags that last long. Many times the bags we get from shops can’t be reused as they are not sturdy.

    Liked by 1 person

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