Other Side to Banning Single-use Plastic NOT Being Discussed

Plastic bags in a grocery cart.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images – Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money’s newsletter. You can sign up here.


It was only about 40 years ago that plastic bags became standard at U.S. grocery stores. This also made them standard in sewers, landfills, rivers and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They clog drains and cause floods, litter landscapes and kill wildlife. The national movement to get rid of them is gaining steam — with more than 240 cities and counties passing laws that ban or tax them since 2007. New York recently became the second U.S. state to ban them. But these bans may be hurting the environment more than helping it.

University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor started studying bag regulations because it seemed as though every time she moved for a new job — from Washington, D.C., to California to Australia — bag restrictions were implemented shortly after. “Yeah, these policies might be following me,” she jokes. Taylor recently published a study of bag regulations in California. It’s a classic tale of unintended consequences.

Paper or plastic?

Before California banned plastic shopping bags statewide in late 2016, a wave of 139 California cities and counties implemented the policy themselves. Taylor and colleagues compared bag use in cities with bans with those without them. For six months, they spent weekends in grocery stores tallying the types of bags people carried out (she admits these weren’t her wildest weekends). She also analyzed these stores’ sales data.

Taylor found these bag bans did what they were supposed to: People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. “What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned,” she says. This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect.

Don’t see the graphic above? Click here

Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.

Plastic haters, it’s time to brace yourselves. A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, Taylor says, the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions. That said, these bans do reduce nonbiodegradable litter.

Are tote bags killing us?

What about reusable cloth bags? We know die-hard public radio fans love them! They’ve got to be great, right?

Nope. They can be even worse.

A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.

That said, the Danish government’s estimate doesn’t take into account the effects of bags littering land and sea, where plastic is clearly the worst offender.

Stop depressing me. What should we do?

The most environment-friendly way to carry groceries is to use the same bag over and over again. According to the Danish study, the best reusable ones are made from polyester or plastics like polypropylene. Those still have to be used dozens and dozens of times to be greener than plastic grocery bags, which have the smallest carbon footprint for a single use.

As for bag policies, Taylor says a fee is smarter than a ban. She has a second paper showing a small fee for bags is just as effective as a ban when it comes to encouraging use of reusable bags. But a fee offers flexibility for people who reuse plastic bags for garbage disposal or dog walking.

Taylor believes the recent legislation passed in New York is a bad version of the policy. It bans only plastic bags and gives free rein to using paper ones (counties have the option to impose a 5-cent fee on them). Taylor is concerned this will drive up paper use. The best policy, Taylor says, imposes a fee on both paper and plastic bags and encourages reuse.

This bag research makes public radio’s love for tote bags awkward, doesn’t it? It might be weird, though, if we started giving out plastic grocery bags.


24 thoughts on “Other Side to Banning Single-use Plastic NOT Being Discussed

  1. If we proceed to ban single use plastics, will we be banning the plastic garbage bag that i use to line the kitchen and yard garbage container. After all the plastic liner/bag intended for refuse use is and should only be “single use”

    Just asking?

  2. Was plastic bags always a part of mankind daily usage
    I remember very well a time when there were no plastic bags and garbage was pick up and kitchens were kept clean and yards were kept clean
    Dont understand all the hullabaloo about banning plastic
    Mankind did an exceptional job of keeping their surroundings clean without them
    And supermarkets did not go out of business because of not having plastic bags to bag groceries
    Bellies did not go hungry because of not having a plastic spoon fork or cup.
    Maybe it is about time the hands of time be turned back setting mankind on the right track

  3. Great article and I do have some of the concerns as expressed above. However, we need not make the same mistakes if we can get 360 feedback and problem solving think tanks involved made up of citizen scientist, stakeholders and general public.

    We also need a Standard Boards to ensure good quality and safety as many are just importing many cheap alternatives from China seeking to exploit the switch.

  4. Will bet that the big shots who are fuming mad about banning plastic bags have plenty money tied up in stock and feels as if they are hopelessly staring down the barrell of a shot gun
    The fact remains that the evidence shows that plastic is very dangerous to the enviroment and most of the plant and animal life which we depend for our survival would become extinct
    As for the cutting down of trees for paper
    Recycling of all kinds of product from which paper can be made all but makes such argument null
    Also technology in the area of agriculture makes it possible to replant many different species of trees at a faster rate than in previous years

  5. Does anyone remember the galvanized garbage can where the left over food where thrown for garbage pick up
    Recently a friend and i were talking about the calabash from the tree which would make a good alternative to plastic plates and cups
    As for garbage bags plastic manufactures can figure out a better altrnative using some kind of reusable material for indoor and outdoor use
    We are living in a era of technology were any and everything can be replaced

  6. Sargassum, Sugar Cane, Sweet potato, Cassava, grains are but some items which can be used to make bioplastics and other cellulose based food containers while creating entrepreneurial opportunities.

    I have repeatedly suggested that developmental loans be offered at concessional rates to assist in manufacturing alternative via smart partnerships. Trinidad is moving to start a bagasse based plant to manufacture food grade containers. Unfortunately we will be burning our bagasse as fuel. Hope you don’t live downwind and suffer the same fate as residents off Checker Hall. The then puisne judge Sir Clifford told that Arawak Cement Plant is a public good and they must learn to live with it.

    • @Kammie

      With the effort to transition from petrobased plastic has any incentive been given to local players to manufacture biodegradable substitutes?

  7. @David King bo and I will continue to push for such. The technologies exist and rather than just BOPM aka Borrow Other Peoples Money we can acquire capacity through the smart partnerships arrangement.

    • @Kammie

      You are saying then that there are no incentives or accommodation being offered for local companies to supply this demand obvious?

  8. Here we go again giving into those who simply politicize and reject change :
    Seat belts : Big debate
    Breathalyzer: Big debate
    Republic: Big Debate
    Plastic Bags: Big Debate

    Ban them !

  9. @David, I will continue to make a call for incentives for those entrepreneurial who can provide alternatives using local source materials to be given concessional developmental loans.

    I support the ban 100%, yes things can always be done different in my world it’s better to start and do correction along the way. See some other environmental concerns we ignore in ignorance.

    1) High levels of PM10 and PM2.5 in high traffic areas as high as 1000 time WHO standards.. according to Bellairs University research last year.

    2) Millions of Cellphones land filled because the profit motive of Flow, Digicel and other phone importers is paramount over environmental fallout. Cadmium, Mercury, lead, beryllium etc

    3) Importation of RoundUp continues because a government official suffers from the #GoatsieSheepleSyndrome. He says California laws are extremely strict so we need not worry and he takes guidance from WHO advisories.. It would have been impolite to tell him he was a goat in a position of authority.

    4) indiscriminate chemical usage and importation of many chemicals only allowed in Third World countries.

    Many things like old clothing can be recovered and made into new micro fibers to make new clothing as is done by many international brands. Yes clothing is also a major pollutant.

    Entrepreneurial opportunities abound but we need to revamp our educational system to encourage business ownership

    • @Kammie

      We must try to be holistic our implements to ensure we give ourselves the opportunity to be successful.

  10. Kammie Holder April 11, 2019 10:39 PM

    “Sargassum, Sugar Cane, Sweet potato, Cassava, grains are but some items which can be used to make bioplastics and other cellulose based food containers while creating entrepreneurial opportunities”…

    At what cost Mr. Holder? As a business person and an entrepreneur like many others who are now paying 75 cents for a container that used to cost 12 cents and becomes soggy when food that has a sauce is put in it. The present container being used also is over 300% by weight more in comparison to the previous container.

    Did you know that Oil is biodegradable, it is Natural and Coal they were formed millions of years ago. They are the Sun’s Stored Energy in the earth.

    Why do Lefties always choose things that are Beneficial to want to Prohibit it?

    (1) The Use of Chlorine in water and as a Sanitizer has been an immense help in preserving Life on the earth.

    (2) The Use of Fossil Fuels to Create Energy that has lifted man from the Stone Age to what we have now. It is Lifting Millions out of Poverty in India. (Do you watch TV at night with Solar Energy?)

    (3) The use of Plastics is Cost Effective…While Green Energy is a $$$$$$$$$$$$$ SCAM!!


  11. It Turns Out Banning Plastic Bags Could Actually Be More Harmful for the Environment

    By Karista Baldwin
    Published April 7, 2019 at 10:26am

    Despite the leftist outcry against plastic bags, some research suggests that plastic bag bans may do more harm than good.

    Support for plastic bag bans is growing in popularity, such as in New York, where lawmakers recently agreed to ban plastic shopping bags, or low-density polyethylene bags.

    But studies have shown that alternatives to LDPE bags that are often pushed as “greener” options may actually have worse effects on the environment.

    Quartz cites one such 2018 study from Denmark’s ministry of environment and food.

    The group studied the environmental impacts of different types of bags over the bags’ life cycles.

    It may come as a surprise to some that the study revealed that LDPE bags had the lowest environmental impact.

    Quartz notes that this study did not account for marine litter, where many point to plastic waste as a major issue.

    The study looked at how the manufacturing of different types of bags affects areas such as ozone depletion, air pollution and water use.

    According to the study, those plastic bags that the left is so preoccupied with may be the least harmful of the most commonly pushed bag options.

    The Denmark study compared the cumulative environmental impact of different bags to those of LDPE ones, assuming that the LDPE bags are reused once before being incinerated. The report states that incineration is the best way to dispose of them.

    According to the study, paper bags and woven polypropylene bags have to be reused around 45 times to match the environmental performance of one typical grocery bag.

    Notably, the study found that a conventional cotton bag has to be reused 7,100 times to make up for the difference in resources used to manufacture it.

    The report assumes that the cotton from the bags isn’t recycled after the bag’s life cycle, because there are few options for wide-scale textile recycling.

    According to the study, the option that takes up the most resources are organic cotton bags, which have to be reused a whopping 20,000 times just to match the environmental performance of one LDPE bag.

    The study arrived at this figure on the assumption that organic cotton has a 30% lower average production rate than conventional cotton, so organic cotton is assumed to take 30% more resources to yield the same amount.

    And cotton biodegrade, while plastics may take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose, according to The New York Times.

    But the Denmark assessment, which is in line with past studies, suggests that banning plastic bags may not be the most well thought-out approach to combating environmental concerns.

  12. Can u please point me where any analysis states that sewage in any form shape or fashion or process is safe to be emptied in any body of water
    The fact beu2ng that if the sewage system was efficient enough and properly equipped to handle the sewage there would not be any need for govt to be using a filtration process to dump toxic residue in the ocean
    Has Worthing beach reopened or are the warning flags still flying at high mass
    For you Minister if Distraction to frown or called me to task on an opinion that shows high respect for the enviroment shows that your interest lies solely with that 3if govt interest and not with the overall health of our enviroment
    U ought to be ashamed of self

  13. Well we won’t miss not having plastic bags to clean up our dog puup. Nobody cleans up dog puup. The organic environmentall friendly way to deal with dog puup, is to let your dogs at night to do its business in your neighbour’s yards; and this is especially good if your neighbours have NEVER had a dog.

    Problem solved.

    Bajan style.

  14. @Kammie Holder April 11, 2019 10:02 PM “We also need a Standard Boards.”

    Do you mean like Barbados National Standards Institute (BNSI)

  15. @Mariposa April 11, 2019 10:17 PM “Does anyone remember the galvanized garbage can…”

    Yes. I still have one. They are still available at most hardware stores. A good one kept in a sheltered spot will last for years.

  16. @Freedom Crier April 12, 2019 10:41 AM “a container that used to cost 12 cents and becomes soggy when food that has a sauce is put in it.”

    I heard people complaining about soggy, so i bought some soup yesterday in one of the very modern containers, brought it home, that took about 15 minutes. Dumped the soup into a soup plate which I inherited from dear aunt Mary, that plate must have been used thousands of times, since the beginning of the 20th century. Washed the container, and right now I have some cooked beans stored in the fridge in it. So “no” soggy was not my experience.

  17. Pestalotiopsis Microspora: The Mushroom That Eats Plastic

    It might seem absurd, until the 2012 discovery by students at Yale University, who found that a rare species of mushroom from the Amazon rainforest is capable of subsisting on plastic alone. More precisely, Pestalotiopsis microspora consumes polyurethane, the key ingredient in plastic products, and converts it to organic matter.

    Further, Pestalotiopsis microspora can live without oxygen, which suggests enormous potential for feeding on, and thus cleaning up, landfills.

    So once again, nature holds the answer. This approach to dealing with plastic overload emerges just as the EU has voted to ban all single-use plastics by 2021. However, that legislation may have more to do with industry politics than with cleaning up the planet. It does nothing to address, for example, the garbage patch twice the size of Texas that’s currently floating in the Pacific Ocean.
    And if that’s too big a feat for these mushrooms to take on, scientists are still optimistic that this discovery will at least change the way we view and use plastic. For example, they envision at-home recycling kits and community recycling centers with fungi systems built in to utilize this process.

    But for those who wonder if feeding on all this plastic this might be creating another monster – overgrown mushrooms instead of trash piles — nature proves to be a problem-solver once again: some plastic-eating species can be eaten themselves. That’s right — in a fascinating study led by Katharina Unger of Utrecht University, it turns out there are actually several species of mushrooms that will eat plastic, and some of them are common, such as the oyster mushroom, which is also edible.

    However, even though there is no plastic left in the finished product, and according to Unger, they taste “sweet with the smell of anise or licorice,” convincing the general public to eat these mushrooms might be a hard sell. More studies are needed to determine the safety of doing so. If found to be safe, then this process holds potential to solve another problem – world hunger. With a reported 100 million people around the world who go hungry every night, having a food source that grows by converting trash to treasure may be worth more than its weight in gold.


  18. The solution is a balancing act. LIFE is a balancing act.

    Too far east is west. Too far west is east.

    Interesting article and interesting post by GreenMonkey. Instead of vilifying and demonizing the opposing voices, branding them lefties and righties, we should realize that this is a debatable topic because there are many sides and many factors that need to be considered.

    It is about balance.

    SMH. Woe to humanity!

  19. Pingback: Other Side to Banning Single-use Plastic NOT Being Discussed • The Circular Economy

The blogmaster dares you to join the discussion.