Sunday, January 25, 2009

What is the Best Way to Deal with the Problem of Plastic Bags?

Reusable shopping bagsImage by Luca Penati via Flickr

Plastic Bag Taxes and Bans - Not the Final Answer by Kit Parks

As more municipalities struggle with the disposal of plastic bags, many are considering a tax, or even an outright plastic bag ban, to reduce usage. Unfortunately, there are some unforeseen consequences to these actions, which can actually harm, rather than help, the environment. Reusable bags are the ultimate solution. However, converting consumers to make it a regular habit has been the real challenge.

The EPA estimates that the US consumes over 100 billion plastic bags each year, with less than 2% being recycled. Most recycling centers reject the flimsy bags because they gum up the recycling equipment. Some estimates say that it can cost thousands of dollars to recycle a ton of plastic bags that are worth less than $30 per ton on the commodities market. New York has laid out an ambitious recycling effort which will hopefully lead to some solutions.

When San Francisco became the first major city to ban plastic bags in 2007, it was hailed as a triumph. Unfortunately, since paper bags are still being offered at no charge, there is only a 'bragging rights' incentive to use a reusable bag. A study by Use Less Stuff found that reusable bag use in San Francisco was about the same as other municipalities without a plastic bag ban, indicating a plastic bag tax by itself may not be enough of a 'stick' to alter consumer behavior.

Paper bags, which many assume are good for the environment, are surprisingly worse. According to the American Chemistry Council, it takes 70% less energy to make a plastic bag versus a paper bag, and the freight costs are seven times more to deliver paper bags to the stores. Stores prefer plastic bags because they do not take up as much space as paper bags, and because paper bags can cost retailers ten times more than plastic bags. Ironically, when disposed, paper bags often don't break down: when a paper bag is tossed in the landfill, it often cannot decompose due to lack of air and moisture.

Millions of reusable bags are sold each year, indicating the good intentions of many consumers. The problem is that people forget them in their cars, and don't realize it until getting ready for the check-out. Another problem is that many of the bags sold are difficult to properly sanitize, as most are spot- or hand-wash only. People who have switched to reusable bags that fold into a pocket or pouch have had better success in converting to a reusable bag habit, as the bags are stored or clipped to a purse or pocket.

Both a plastic bag ban and tax lead to increased use of paper bags, higher costs and a negative environmental impact. If municipalities were to tax both plastic and paper bags, this would be the 'stick' necessary to alter behavior. By keeping one-time use bags available, a shopper would still have that option at checkout, in addition to those times that they may forget their own bags. Increased use of reusable bags with a self-storing pocket would help eliminate those times the shopper forgets.

Kit Parks is the president of Ecoroot, a wholesale and retail reusable products company which donates 20% of its profits to environmental education programs. In addition to a complete line of eco-reusable products, Ecoroot manufacturers a unique patent-pending reusable mesh bag that stores in a customizable pocket that stores in a purse, so you don't forget it - you can even wash it in the dishwasher! She writes about environmental and lifestyle issues. Parks can be contacted via the Ecoroot website: or check out her eco-blog which has links to cool environmental websites and discusses the problems of one-time plastic use at:

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