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  • Sammy Melnick

Tackling plastic pollution will take more than bag bans, but we have to start somewhere

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

At the outset of efforts to combat the plastic pollution crisis, local and state governments across the U.S. are focused on banning single-use plastic bags. As these efforts gain headway, however, several studies have emerged challenging the effectiveness of bag bans. These studies – and their coverage in the media – are causing some confusion among consumers and legislators. Studies critiquing plastic bag bans don’t account for the broader scope of plastics – and they shouldn’t be taken as an excuse not to ban bags at all.

A more recent study from a researcher at the University of Sydney found that California’s bag ban led to a moderate increase in paper bag usage and pushed some customers to buy thicker plastic bags. The study suggests these thicker bags were purchased to replace the secondary use of free, single-use plastic bags as trashcan liners or to pick up pet waste. As a comparison of weight, the study reported that 28.5% of the plastic reduced through a bag ban was offset by shifting consumption to other bags.

The upshot of the Sydney study is that the California bag ban reduced plastic bag consumption by 71.5% – a huge decrease. It also took 100% of those plastic grocery bags out of the recycling system, where they bound up machinery and increased costs. The ban also kept them from littering neighborhoods and the environment.

While the Sydney study is cited as a criticism of bag bans, it also shows how successful they are in reducing plastic bag use. The study also indicates that bans don’t go far enough to end the plastic crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a temporary return to single-use plastic – public officials and businesses throughout New England have curbed the use of reusable coffee cups, delayed plastic bag bans, and temporarily banned reusable bags from grocery stores. These decisions were made to protect public health, but in the past few months the following facts have come to light:

  • The driving force linking COVID-19 with reusable bags was not public health officials, but the plastics industry;

  • Evidence and statements from the public health community make clear that there is no known contact transmission of the coronavirus on any surface, including reusable bags; and

  • Even if the coronavirus were to be transmitted via contact, the virus has a longer life on plastic than other materials.

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