Every 5 seconds, it’s estimated that Americans use about 60,000 plastic bags. During the holiday season, consumption increases, as shoppers leap from store to store, getting a new single-use sack at every stop. But some cities and even states are stepping in to stop the waste, by banning or imposing small fees on plastic bags. Could a bag ban or tax be coming to your town?
Plastic bag bans don’t necessarily bar every sack in the city. Usually, they place bans on one or two kinds of bags, or only apply to select–usually large–stores. San Francisco, Maui, Portland, and outer banks of North Carolina all have these kinds of bans. California and 11 other states have considered statewide bans, and dozens of other cities are also weighing the options. Washington DC has enforced a small fee to cut down on bag use–something Seattle passed, but then had repealed by an initiative last year. The fee would have been a nickel for every plastic bag used.
Elsewhere in the world, other countries are enforcing full-on bag bans with gusto. France had phased plastic sacks out entirely by 2010–following a ban in Paris back in 2007–and even China has jumped on. Meanwhile, other countries, like Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium have been taxing bags for years.
Why all the fuss? Those who are against bag bans state that they can be difficult for businesses to comply with, and that they treat the instrument (the bag), rather than the behavior (pollution by people who use the bags). But it’s more than just littering that makes bags problematic, although the number of plastic bags that never even make it into a landfill is a pretty huge problem in and of itself–plastic bags pollute from the minute they’re manufactured, until they slowly break down (but don’t biodegrade) into the soil.
Plastic bags are made of petroleum, which is made from oil–and, as you may have heard, oil is a finite resource. Those who preach American independence from global oil producers seem to forget that that’s precisely where plastic bags come from. Additionally, the carbon footprint of making plastic bags is huge. To meet consumer demand, manufacturers burn through millions of gallons of oil, releasing toxins into the air and wasting precious resources. And only a fraction of the recyclable products actually get re-used. Those that end up in landfills, or worse, the ocean, don’t actually break down or compost–they shred into tiny, toxin-leaking pieces that pollute the groundwater.
Curbing the use of plastic bag through bans may seem extreme to some, but consider the alternative. As long as plastic bags are still offered, they’ll still be manufactured, used, and wasted. By cutting out demand for bags, state and local governments are hoping to not only clean up their waterways and wide open spaces, they’re hoping to make a global impact by reducing air and water pollution from the production of bags. And in a world where canvas and re-usable totes are becoming widely accepted as mainstream (even Karl Lagerfeld is in on it), there’s no reason to use plastic.
This holiday season, say no to waste by bringing your own bags for all of your gifts and goodies. Even if your city or state never bans the bag, you can still do your part to cut down on pollution and dependence on oil. It’s like giving a stocking-stuffer to the planet.
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