Plastic Bags: To Ban or Not to Ban?


Plastic shopping bags. They certainly serve a purpose. They are cheap and easy to produce and their light weight makes them ideal to keep shipping costs down. Reused, they make great liners for small trash cans or a convenient way to carry all sorts of things. But an image I will never forget was the very first time I visited a landfill and saw plastic bags clearly visible in every nearby tree looking somewhat a layer of spider webs. Years later, I learned that one of our local landfills even trained a monkey to climb the trees and retrieve these pesky air blown things! It’s not just a problem in landfills. You see them virtually everywhere; on roadsides, stuck in shrubbery and telephone wires, and in bodies of water. Yuck.

Of course, litter is not the only environmental concern with these and obviously this is not a new issue. But, I found it interesting to learn that plastic bags were once seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags. More recent reports seem to find both equally as bad and conclude that using reusable bags instead is the much better choice environmentally. The energy and resources required to make just one plastic bag might not be terribly significant, but why are we mass producing and using so many in this country? To me that is the bigger concern.

On June 18th, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and some retailers. This will make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States to implement a single-use ban. Though California has been among the most progressive states in enacting environmental policy, Los Angeles is not alone in banning plastic shopping bags. Chicago, Aspen, and Eugene, Oregon have also implemented similar bans. Many others are also looking into charging a fee on bags. To most in the United States this seems like a drastic measure. However, it’s common practice among many European countries. The cultural norm is you bring your bag with you when you go shopping, or you often have to pay for one at the store. It makes perfect sense, after all plastic bags are not free. But here in the United States where putting items in a bag when purchased is common practice (often even if you are only purchasing one item that could easily be carried out), we don’t think about the cost because the cost is already included in everything we purchase! We are paying for it, like it or not.

Because of the cultural norm being so different in the U.S., naturally there is a lot of resistance in this country for a ban. Other states, like New York, have tried the less progressive approach to increase the recycling of plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer a recycling programs to their customers. The effectiveness of these programs is questionable and don’t reduce the number of plastic bags produced.

Colleges and Universities have looked at the issue. Tufts, California State University of Long Beach, University of Oregon, and Ithaca College have all lobbied to ban bags and actively encourage the use of reusable bags. Earlier this year, the University of Rochester’s Team Green began a similar campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. Although there was some support, those who were against this idea were quite adamant. You will see quite the debate in the comments of our blog post on the topic. I wonder if there would be the same amount of push-back for a ban on bags? I tend to think that people are a bit more passionate when it comes to food and beverages. But, there is definitely a large number of people who believe in their right to choose and want to preserve that right, regardless of what the issue is. A strict ban on anything would be out of the question for these invidiuals.

Perhaps a compromise could be reached at the University some day, or a campaign to promote reusable bags on campus will begin. Plastic bags are most definitely ending up in our waste stream and we pay to have them hauled to a landfill. A few small student initiatives to collect and recycle bags have been formed, with not much impact. In my opinion, the way to be more successful is through source reduction. While I do not believe that banning plastic bags altogether is the ultimate answer, I’m all for doing it in campus setting.

21 Replies to “Plastic Bags: To Ban or Not to Ban?”

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  2. “I wholeheartedly support a ban. People can buy reusable bags for 99 cents, so any kind of resistance would just be childish.”

    When you get a plastic bag at the supermarket, part of what you’re getting is the convenience. If that option isn’t available, you can’t spontaneously buy groceries– you have to know when you go out whether or not you’re planning to buy groceries, and plan to bring the right number of bags with you. In addition to being inconvenient, that wastes time and in many cases carbon-dioxide emitting fuel.

    So, ideally, we want people to use reusable bags when they easily can, but still have the option of getting a bag at the store if for some reason they couldn’t bring one with them. If reusable bags are 99 cents and can be used indefinitely, then we should only need a very small tax on plastic bags to encourage those people.

    That’s the beauty of the price system. It is impossible and for “central planners”– whether they be government authorities or ballot initiative voters in California or online commentators with good intentions– to do a cost-benefit analysis for everyone else who might want to use a service. But if you know what the external cost is that you want to correct for, and place an appropriately sized-tax, then you stop the people who can easily stop the harmful behavior, but not the people who would truly be hurt. That’s why outright bans should only be proposed in exceptional circumstances. Plastic bags cause environmental problems that can be significant in the aggregate, but nobody can say with a straight face that the average cost per bag is more than a few cents. (It’s probably a fraction of a cent.)

    (And, I should add, you don’t *always* want to impose a tax on every behavior that causes some kind of environmental harm, and when you do you don’t always want that to equal the size of the external cost. However, the size of the external cost is a *maximum* cap under almost all circumstances. Since bans are an infinite tax [or a very large tax, depending on enforcement], they’re a really horrible idea.)

  3. But think of all those poor workers in the plastic bag factories! Do you people not care about human welfare?

    That aside, these bans are not sound policy and the people that are adamantly against them are not out to destroy the environment. I don’t want to be told what is best for me or forced into certain behaviors by others. I don’t want a committee making any of my daily choices for me. We all have different preferences and should have the liberty to express those preferences on a personal basis. Passing law (whether on a university, state, or national level) that values certain people’s preferences over others is unjust, as I will illustrate with some examples.

    Example #1: I think the resources that are needed to support college sport programs are excessive (busses, equipment, lights, turf, balls, tracks etc). These programs and their maintenance produce countless tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly and contribute to global warming. Furthermore, much sporting equipment, which has a quick turnover, ends up in landfills. Clearly the environment would be better off without college sports. As a member of Team Green, I am going to ban sports.

    Example #2: I am Texas Governor Rick Perry. I don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will carry an embryo to term. Therefore, I will work hard with the state legislature to make abortions harder to get and more emotionally damaging for women seeking them. These women may disagree, but my preferences are more important than theirs and abortions are bad for my religious beliefs.

    Example #3: The War on Drugs

    In conclusion, there may be issues in which “bans” or other similar regulation of behavior IS in society’s best interest, but we need to be exceptionally careful in when and how we implement such things. As Michael said above, we need to have serious academic discussion and ideally see solid evidence proving that such things will work. This has not been the case with initiatives like “ban the bottle.” Sometimes obvious conclusions (“drugs are bad, let’s ban them”) have very negative unintended consequences (see prison-industrial complex).

  4. Jackie have you ever considered that some people prefer NOT to spend 99 cents on a “reusable” bag? Have you ever considered that many of us use plastic bags extensively over and over again, to hold my fish when I go fishing, to use as packing material when we send things, to line our trash bags? Or maybe just to use to carry our groceries home without using a smelly old reusable bag. I suspect what you really want to do is control other people. I have a question for you, after banning plastic bags, what is your next target going to be? Facial tissues? After all we can all use handkerchiefs, right? How about band-aids? we can all use clean rags as bandages, just like in the 18th century…oh the potential is limitless!!

  5. Okay, so real quick on a few of your points.

    I disagree on your point about mass production. Doing anything has an impact on the environment, not necessarily bad, but that’s not a justification for us all to live in caves. Mass production of vaccines uses resources and nominally hurts the environment, but I don’t think anyone would say that we should stop mass producing vaccines to help the environment (and vaccines certainly have led to a positive impact on human health). But of course that’s not the point you were making, I think. I think you were referring to the relative merits of mass producing plastic bags relative to mass production of anything else (vaccines, toys, food, clothes, etc.). Maybe plastic bags seem “trivial” and we could help the environment by simply not making them, but when we enter the world of bans and public policy, who is to make the decision on what is okay to mass produce and what is not? And what is valuable and what is not? I am not qualified to make those decisions and I don’t think voting on what gets produced is a good outcome. You’re discounting all of the wonderful things mass production has brought us, and making an arbitrary distinction on what you think is okay to be mass produced, and what you think is not okay to be mass produced. This I think leads back to the original point of bans on things that some people do not like.

    Perhaps a fee on plastic bags makes sense, but these discussions on bottles, bags, etc. have started out as trying to ban things–I do not understand why that is the initial instinct. Just as you have the right to choose not to use a bag or bottle, I have the right to choose to use those items, and you haven’t identified any criteria under which that might change. I don’t know whether the point you make about the overhead cost of bags being charged to everyone is correct or whether it is desirable to have a national “tax” on plastic bags, but a fee or tax only makes sense insofar as my using a plastic bag harms you. It may be the case that it does, I doubt it but may be wrong, but that hasn’t entered into any of these discussions as a justification for placing a fee on plastic bags, all I’ve seen is that people don’t like them. Two more things on “taxing” bags: there are stores that choose voluntarily, I think, to charge 5 cents for plastic bags and anyone is able to choose to shop at those stores, just as I am able to choose to not shop at those stores. That should seem to solve the problem of overhead cost right there. The other thing is that since most stores do not charge for plastic bags, that leads me to believe they’re not that expensive, and don’t impose many overhead costs or environmental costs on other people, though I may be wrong.

    And just on the statement about the U of R caring about the environment, I am not sure why that is a statement that the U of R should make. Why do we all have to believe the same thing? Or in the same policy? Or all have to agree with the same statement? Is the point of a university not to preserve and protect different viewpoints and foster a lively discussion and debate on serious issues? Since when did the point of a university become for us all to believe the same thing? I don’t hate the environment, but banning plastic bags does nothing to help the environment. This statement about the environment is yours, it’s not mine and I don’t understand why there is a presumption that we all must sign onto this movement. And if the statement is merely that the environment is good or the environment is important, then that statement really means nothing at all, its analogous to saying the U of R hopes for a good economy. No one’s trying to degrade the environment, but banning plastic bags does nothing to help the environment, and asking us all to sign on to the belief that we must ban plastic bags to help the environment is the antithesis of what a university is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to have serious discussions about these issues and have different viewpoints and protect those, not all be forced into believing the same thing.

    Also, I agree with you on the living-learning communities point you make. Universities should be laboratories for experiment in every way, and perhaps in public policy. But we should be aiming for good policy, not fostering bad policy and patting ourselves on the back. Banning plastic bags is bad policy, good policy involves research into these issues, not just banning things that some people don’t like.

  6. Michael- First of all I want to clarify that the University is not considering a ban on plastic bags at this time. This article was simply to express my opinion on the matter in light of the recent LA ban. I appreciate you taking the time to express your onions too. As you state that a University-wide ban is not enough and if I really “care” I would be advocating for a nationwide ban, would it then be correct to conclude that since you are against these types of bans you do not care about the environment? If so, I am sure it would be unlikely for our opinions to match on the issue. My purpose of this article was not to change anyone’s mind or inundate you with statistical facts and research that may or may not mean anything. I do respect your right to have your own opinion.

    But to elaborate on my opinion for those who do intrinsically care about the environment, plastic bags do serve a purpose (SOMETIMES) and I don’t think that outlawing them altogether makes sense. I do, however think that they are overused in this country at a rate that is completely unnecessary and wasteful. What’s worse is that most of them are not recycled, but end up in the trash or as litter. Research aside, it seems like common sense to me that mass producing anything at unnecessary quantities has a negative impact on the natural world around us. I do believe mass production has negative impacts on human health in the long run as well, though this is harder to “prove” with the data we have before us at this time.

    I think a more realistic approach is to charge people a fee for plastic bags and I would be for doing that on a national scale. That way, people still have the right to choose to use them and those of us who do not want to use them every time we shop will not be paying for them as an overhead cost in the price of goods. But if charged for them, people would surely think twice about using them and use less of them as a result.

    Why then do I think that a University-wide ban makes sense? Universities function almost like mini cities and have served as great subject areas to pilot projects out. But, just because the University’s retail operations would not be giving plastic bags out does not mean that plastic bags would cease to exist at the University. People would still bring them in from the outside. I agree that banning them at the University wouldn’t make a significant direct impact on the environment. But more importantly, it would be making a statement and sending a message about overconsumption that would hopefully resonate and make others think about the issue as well. That’s what Universities are so good at; making people think about the issues.

  7. If you really care about the environment, I think the right move is an altogether ban on plastic bags, not a U of R ban on plastic bags. If plastic bags are such a drastic problem, a campus ban on them will do nothing, you would need a nationwide ban. That’s what you might want to advocate for if you really care about the environment as opposed to just SHOWING you care about the environment.

    Anyone is more than welcome to not use plastic bags and if that is what they prefer no one will ever get in the way of that choice. There may be some conditions under which my using a plastic bag harms you, and indeed that should be restricted, but you haven’t named any of those above. All I see is your right to choose to not use plastic bags outweighs my right to choose to use plastic bags. I haven’t seen any evidence above, other than the mere existence of plastic bags, that they are harmful to the environment. I would hope that any initiative to ban plastic bags, or whatever other item people choose not to like that week, is supported by more evidence outside just the mere existence of the item. It may exist, but that’s not the argument being made above.

    And during the “ban the bottle” campaign, both at the panel that was held and in a separate meeting, I asked and begged for scientific evidence demonstrating that plastic water bottles are bad for the environment. At the panel I asked why instead of banning water bottles we don’t do research into the economic, environmental and social implications of reduced water bottle usage, I was told that “team green is made up of students and as students there is coursework, extracurriculars and a million other things going on, so that research would be too time-consuming and out of reach given everything else going on”. I suppose it’s easy to ban stuff and complain about things, a bit harder to figure out if what you’re complaining about makes sense.

    In fact, in a separate meeting about the plastic water bottle ban initiative, I again asked for evidence of the environmental harm of plastic water bottles. I was told that research was completed and compiled (a literature review) but that it would not be shared with me. I don’t think that I will ever advocate banning anything, but if I did I assure you I would not hide my motivations or scientific support behind my efforts.

    I look forward to seeing the research to support this desired ban, and an academic discussion on whether such a policy makes sense and accomplishes its stated goals (which are what again?), rather than simply activism to ban things that some people do not like.

    Michael Dymond
    University of Rochester 2013

  8. I wholeheartedly support a ban. People can buy reusable bags for 99 cents, so any kind of resistance would just be childish.

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