As of August 2015, Chicago banned ‘single use’ plastic bags from grocery stores within the city. The city defines ‘singe use’ bags as the thin plastic bags that most grocery and drug stores provide for us at checkout. The ones that easily rip if you try to carry two gallons of milk in the same bag, naturally these items are usually double bagged. Chicago’s ban replaced these ‘single use’ bags with a thicker plastic bag that is considered ‘reusable’.
Despite several stores posted signage alerting shoppers that plastic bags would no longer be available for them after July, many were still surprised when checking out at the store. As someone who noticed the signs and was at first thrilled about the end to plastic bags in a city where it’s not uncommon to see plastic bags stuck in trees and fences, I was disappointed and even angry to find out plastic bags were still available. This makes it a fake ban to me. Why claim to ban plastic bags when the ban is to replace them with thicker ‘reusable’ plastic bags?
Like Chicago, cities like Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and several others across the country implemented similar bans on plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores. These bans include completely banning plastic bags from stores to offering a thicker plastic bag that is considered reusable. California was the first to ban plastic bags and water bottles in several cities, but others are just at the beginning of their efforts. What makes a successful plastic bag ban? How can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? And how can consumers make a difference just by remembering to bring reusable bags to the store?
Research from CNS News in Austin, Texas found that a year after their plastic ban was introduced, with the same intentions to ban ‘single use’ bags and replace them with ‘reusable’ plastic bags, the ban was actually less sustainable. The research goes on to explain that producing the ‘reusable’ plastic bags means using more resources to produce a plastic bag and ultimately people are not reusing it. Well, that was research money well spent- not. Why are you offering a thicker plastic bag instead of just doing away with plastic all together? This seems like the only logical solution to actually reduce the number of plastic bags in use and encourage people to use true reusable canvas bags.
As with most polarizing decisions, there needs to be incentive for people to get onboard. In Maryland and DC, they found success charging just five cents for a plastic bag. While that doesn’t seem like much, in both cities they found that it was enough to make consumers think about whether what they were buying was worth the extra five cents for a bag. 90% of shoppers in the area now remember their reusable bags when shopping.
Why does this even matter? What harm do plastic bags pose to the environment as a whole and how can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? The Plastic Pollution Coalition released data that shows in America, we use 30 million tons of plastic each year and only 8% of that gets recycled. Plastic is a strong durable and petroleum based material, it does not biodegrade. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and it’s getting into our waterways and oceans. Eliminating plastic bags is an easy way for us to maintain the health of ecosystems and of our most precious resource, water.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow. Plastic bags drift into the oceans carrying pesticides and other harmful chemicals directly into our waterways. Animals can get caught in the plastic or confuse it for food. Populations of fish, birds and other wildlife are washing up on shore dead with large amounts of plastic material to blame. Wildlife in the ocean may not matter to you on a regular basis, but it seems ironic that consumers bring a salmon filet or pound of shrimp home from the store in a plastic bag and then claim that they don’t care about ocean wildlife. If you want to continue to enjoy the selection of food at the store, you need to think about how your actions influence it.
How can cities improve their plastic bag bans? Actually follow through on that, ban plastic bags. Force people to use a true reusable bag, even if it means starting by imposing a five-cent tax. Institutions and government don’t like to force the public to do anything. The thing is plastic bags have not been around for that long, 1962 to be exact. It’s only been since 1968 that the government required all vehicles to have seat belts. In 2004, the government made it illegal to smoke in public places. These were changes the government enforced and that the public had to adjust to and today they just seem like common sense.
Plastic bags have a direct impact on our health as well. They contaminate our water supply, the air we breathe and use resources that can be put to better use. Why is it so hard to adjust to using the same, at most, half a dozen bags each shopping trip to improve our health and the health of our environment?
You may be thinking, my city doesn’t ban plastic bags, maybe they don’t but you can. Change doesn’t start at the government level; it starts with an individual and the decisions that they choose to make. Reusable bags, reusable water bottles, these are solutions we already have and need to continue to use while addressing other pollution issues. The next time you go grocery shopping, remember your bags and remember that you’re part of the solution.