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

Earth Day 2018: A Call to Action

Next Sunday is Earth Day. So in advance, I wish everyone a happy Earth Day!

However, I don’t feel that it’s enough to just wish ourselves and others a good Earth Day. We need to take action too.

The action I propose for this year is that all of us think about the ways in which we use too much plastic and don’t put plastic where we should.[1]

Indeed, when we go to fast food restaurants, we’re given plastic tops for our drinks and straws made of plastic. We go to grocery stores and buy plastic water bottles. We throw our plastics away on the street or in the regular trash, often because that is the most convenient and expedient thing to do. We have plastic bags at grocery stores, and then throw them away in the regular trash once we use them for our one purpose (carrying groceries). So much of our food uses plastic wrapping, and we use plastic bags to help seal and protect food.

Granted, some of the onus is on companies and the government. Companies that use plastic in its products can have a hand too in at least making sure that their products are recyclable, so that the plastic we use causes as little harm to the environment as possible. Government can also have refuse-disposal cans not only for trash, but for paper and plastic as well.[2]

But some of the responsibility is in the hands of us as individuals. I don’t pretend to be holier-than-thou, as I have used and continue to use more plastic than I’d like. However, just because I struggle with some or all of these things doesn’t mean that I (and others) shouldn’t try to do better. We should all try to do better, because I highly doubt that many of us are as good as we could be. We can at least cut plastic out of our lives when plastic is not necessary; for example, when we’re at sit-down restaurants, we don’t need straws and can politely ask not to be given straws. We can also use tap water (with maybe a filter) instead of plastic water bottles. And, if you are a decision-maker in a company or in government, you can advocate for measures that could increase the recycling of plastic or cut down on plastic usage.

I, for one, commit to trying to be better about refusing to use plastic straws, as well as recycling my plastic when I am out in public. I hope that others use the upcoming Earth Day to make a commitment to cut down on plastic usage and recycle the plastic we use.


[1] This is in line with the Earth Day Network’s focus on plastic this year.

[2] In every municipality I’ve been in, including New York City, they make the baffling decision not to do this everywhere.