The banning of plastic shopping bags

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There was a time not too long ago when the question you were asked when checking out of a supermarket here in Westport, CT was, “Will that be paper or plastic?“ There are still places you find checkout clerks asking that, but there are stores that simple give you two choices with bags – take it or leave it.

Back here in 2009, a law went into effect banning almost all plastic bags. There are a few exceptions, such as those needed for fruit and produce and the like. But overall they are gone for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about the ban, though I think on the whole it is good.

OK, there should be a stated rational why I am against plastic shopping bags. Actually, I have a lot of reasons and I think pretty good ones. First of all, you find them everywhere – on the streets, in parking lots, on lawns, and blowing in the wind on those blustery days. It’s an environmental nuisance, with the equivalent of garbage being used to pack our groceries and retail items in. True, part of it is people who could care less about the environment, but that does not mean we should help them not care.

Another reason I am pro getting rid of the bags is they are so flimsy that if you try and carry anything heavy in them, say a watermelon, you are likely to find the contents leaving a trail behind you because the bag split. Paper rips, plastic splits. Once you leave the store and your 3 dozen eggs are now a part of the parking lot pavement, you are out the eggs and the bag. So if you ask for double bagging you double the problem.

A third reason that is both environmental and conservational is the material the plastic bags are made of. Yes, stores offer recycle bins you can use to recycle the plastic bags, but I personally never saw a whole lot of people using them. Plastic is part oil, a resource that we have to import. Even if the bags are biodegradable, that degradation takes time. One hundred plastics bags cluttering up a beautiful view of trees thrown there by irresponsible people will not just melt away during the next rain.

The actual figure for a plastic bag to completely degrade is about 1000 years. Even when they completely degrade they are toxic. Other facts about plastic bags:

The United States uses about 100 billion plastic bags a year. That is not a typo. One hundred billion.
The cost to the stores is about $4 billion a year.
Somehow, the plastic bags make it to the ocean, and are the second largest ocean pollutant behind cigarette butts.

I’ll try to make a case for plastic bags. If they are made with biodegradable material (not plastic) and somehow manage to make their way back to the store for recycling, then that makes some sense. They are less bulky than paper and don’t burn. They don’t rip or fall apart when they get wet. The question is what is the cost, beyond what it costs the stores to buy them, to the consumer?