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Do Plastic Bag Bans Actually Work?

In December of 2018, Boston’s plastic bag ban went into effect. This ordinance bans single-use bags at retail stores, mandating that all bags must be reusable or made of recycled paper, and have to be taxed at least 5 cents. Similar bans are already implemented in about 132 other cities and counties in the US, including New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco. In fact, California enacted a state-wide ban on plastic bags in 2015. India, China, and the European Union have restrictions on plastic bags too. But are all these bans actually helping the problem of plastic waste?

First, it’s important to understand the scope of the issue. Plastic is well-known to be harmful to the environment: it takes up to 500 years to degrade, it endangers the life in our oceans (in fact, 267 marine species are known to have gotten entangled in or ingested plastic debris), it clutters city streets and sidewalks, and it releases toxins into our water and soil.  The fossil fuels used in the fabrication of plastic bags is also cause for concern, since plastic itself is made from petroleum and the manufacturing process requires energy from oil and natural gas.

To make matters worse, humans use a ridiculously large number of plastic bags--about 1 trillion--each year. Ninety percent of those bags are thrown away after one use, meaning that 100 billion plastic bags are discarded into the environment every year. In fact, the average plastic bag is used for twelve minutes before getting tossed. This wasteful practice takes a financial toll on businesses too; American companies spend $4 billion annually on plastic bags alone.

Luckily, banning and taxing plastic bags has succeeded in reducing plastic use worldwide. Washington DC saw a 50% drop in single-use bags after their 2009 tax; San Jose experienced a 59% reduction in plastic litter in streets and neighborhoods after their 2011 ban, and when Ireland started taxing plastic bags in 2002 the amount of litter decreased by 95%.  The ocean has also benefited from plastic bag regulations: a group of researchers from the UK conducted a 25-year study that observed a 30% reduction in the amount of plastic waste in the waters surrounding Norway, Germany, France, and Ireland after the countries implemented bag taxes.

While there is solid evidence to support the implementation of plastic bag bans, the downsides must be considered as well. The primary concern of taxing or banning plastic bags is the added cost to the consumer, especially consumers of a low socioeconomic status that already struggle to pay for groceries. Additionally, the tax adds stress for the businesses that must start purchasing more expensive reusable bags, and threatens the employees of the plastic and paper industries. We must find ways to overcome the hurdles while still doing everything we can to protect the environment.

Banning plastic bags in Boston is a step in the right direction, but there’s still an overwhelming amount of work to be done. Globally, we are still very dependent on plastics and we produce about 300 million metric tons each year. Reducing that number will take a lot of lifestyle and societal changes, but it needs to happen if we are going to maintain the earth as a habitable planet. Hopefully, our society will use the plastic bag bans as a starting point to jumpstart a movement of environmental policy change.


Ariana Infanti is a senior Nutrition major at Simmons University who loves learning and writing about food, fashion, and sustainability.
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