Banning plastic bags is great for the world, right? Banning Plastic Bags Is Great for the World, Right? Not So Fast Like cigarettes, plastic bags have recently gone from a tolerated nuisance to a widely despised and discouraged vice. Last month, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers. Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a measure that w

Banning plastic bags is great for the world, right?
Banning Plastic Bags Is Great for the World, Right? Not So Fast

Like cigarettes, plastic bags have recently gone from a tolerated nuisance to a widely despised and discouraged vice.

Last month, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers. Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a measure that would ban plastic bags from being dispensed by many retail businesses and require a charge of 10 cents or more for a recycled paper or reusable bag. The Massachusetts proposal may not become law this year, but it’s the latest sign that the plastic bag industry is losing this war. Already in Massachusetts, 32 towns and cities have passed bag bans or fees. So have at least 88 localities in California, including the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus cities and towns in more than a dozen other states and more than a dozen other countries.

The adverse impacts of plastic bags are undeniable: When they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking storm drains, littering streets, getting stuck in trees, and contaminating oceans, where fish, seabirds, and other marine animals eat them or get tangled up in them. As longtime plastic bag adversary Ian Frazier recently reported in The New Yorker, “In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, behind smaller debris such as cigarette butts, plastic straws, and bottle caps.” The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out bags every week, and has to spend $12.5 million a year to dispose of them.

Bag bans cut this litter off at the source: In San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags winding up in the city’s storm drains. Fees have a smaller, but still significant, effect. Washington, DC’s government estimates that its 5-cent bag tax has led to a 60 percent reduction in the number of these bags being used, although that figure is contested by other sources.

Is plastic really worse than paper?

But advocates of these laws and journalists who cover the issue often neglect to ask what will replace plastic bags and what the environmental impact of that replacement will be. People still need bags to bring home their groceries. And the most common substitute, paper bags, may be just as bad or worse, depending on the environmental problem you’re most concerned about.

That’s leading to a split in the anti-bag movement. Some bills, like in Massachusetts, try to reduce the use of paper bags as well as plastic, but still favor paper. Others, like in New York City, treat all single-use bags equally. Even then, the question remains as to whether single-use bags are necessarily always worse than reusable ones.

Studies of bags’ environmental impacts over their life cycle have reached widely varying conclusions. Some are funded by plastic industry groups, like the ironically named American Progressive Bag Alliance. Even studies conducted with the purest of intentions depend on any number of assumptions. How many plastic bags are replaced by one cotton tote bag? If a plastic bag is reused in the home as the garbage bag in a bathroom waste bin, does that reduce its footprint by eliminating the need for another small plastic garbage bag?

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If your chief concern is climate change, things get even muddier. One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic. That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.

“People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact,” says David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined the research on the environmental impact of bag use. The reasons for paper’s higher carbon footprint are complex, but can mostly be understood as stemming from the fact that paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags. “Very broadly, carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object,” says Tyler. For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags.