Plastic Bags – To Ban or Not to Ban…

As an elected board member of a small incorporated Village, I’ve been asked by many people why we haven’t yet banned the use of plastic bags (the kinds that you use to carry items out of a store, not food storage bags), just as many surrounding municipalities have. I have one answer for them – made up of a lot of what I call “micro answers,” because, well, I just don’t ever see things in black and white.…

The answer is simply that I’m not certain that banning the use of plastic bags is the best solution to the greater problem.

First, let me state that I think that we have a major global crisis involving plastic. I also admit that there are a lot of good things that have come from plastic. But that’s a topic for another discussion. Back to the point of this blog and the many micro-answers…

Let’s start off with an important aspect of this topic. Choices. While I identify as more of a realist than an idealist, I do believe that people can change. And by that I mean that the idealist might say something like “people should…” whereas the realist might say “people do…” and even though people should skip the plastic bag by carrying the items out or bringing their own reusable bag, the fact is that most people do just take the plastic bag. Being a realist, I know that this is a reality.

So what to do? Ban stores from offering plastic bags by means of a local law? Make a law that only allows for use paper bags? Tax plastic bags as an optional item? Don’t offer any bags at all and let the customer figure it out? Offer cardboard boxes that were used to package the many smaller products that you just bought? So many things to consider. And this is why a simple “ban” might not be the best solution.

When contemplating how to tackle a “problem” or “challenge,” it’s of utmost importance to identify precisely what the problem is. It sounds asinine that such an obvious thing needs to be said, but it really does need to be said. I think most people would identify the “problem” when it comes to plastic bags is that they are “bad for the environment.” But what exactly does that mean? Sure, they take an incredibly long time to break down, they consume finite resources to manufacture them and they choke marine life to death, but what is the actual effect of them being in existence? The answer is complicated by one of the flaws that I’ve seen in the banning of their use.

Creating a law is not a simple task. Legislators need to play Devil’s Advocate and look for flaws, loopholes, inconsistencies, missing pieces, overlooked elements and sometimes even parts of the law that straight-out contradict themselves or just don’t make any sense.

In the case of the recent bans that I’ve mentioned, there’s one big flaw: the law identifies the banned products as “single use” plastic bags. What’s the definition of “single use?” Very logical question, right? In their legislation, it is defined by thickness of the bag. But who decides the thickness? This sounds so silly and trivial and typical of government, but this is a crucial part of the legislation, because guess what some stores did? They upgraded to thicker bags. Now, they’re not “single use” by definition (a discretionary and subjective decision by the lawmakers). Oops.

So now we have fewer thin, “single use” bags being used and we have a bunch of (albeit significantly less in quantity than before) “non-single use” bags entering landfills. Not great.

Some argue that this result is still better because of the overall reduction in quantity. But others counter-argue that the thicker bags are far worse because they take so much longer to break down. Also, the logic of banning “single use” bags is that they are typically only used once, whereas “non-single use” are used more than once. But, how many times more than once? Twice? 4 times? 10 times? Regardless, ALL of these bags wind up in the same place. Landfills.

So back to the original question: what to do?

As a frequent realist and an infrequent idealist, I’m also an occasional optimist. And what I’ve seen over the past year relative to the plastic bag conundrum has given me hope. What has happened in Suffolk County, NY is what I see as a blend of ideas and implementations that has made a massive difference.

There is now a 5 cent tax on each plastic bag that is used by the consumer. They’re logically very thin, making them inexpensive so that the store lays out as little capital as possible, and being so thin they break down quicker. And even though 5 cents isn’t much these days, it’s astounding how many people try to avoid it. I can say with confidence as a very interested observer, that I see 85%-90% of shoppers at the grocery store use their own reusable bags.

Where does that 5 cent tax go? Topic for another conversation.

There are a host of other dialogues on this topic that for the purposes of my blog I won’t go into detail on, such as:

  • What are the economic effects of bans on the plastic bag industry and its employees?
  • What’s the financial impact of a ban such as this on the stores?
  • What’s the financial impact of a ban such as this on the consumer?
  • What are the specific environmental impacts of plastic bags?
  • What are the true environmental benefits of plastic bag bans regionally and worldwide?
  • What are the other things that we are overlooking and/or ignoring when spending time and energy on plastic bag ban legislation?

The dialogue and considerations are endless. In themeantime, let’s all focus on what I consider by far the most important aspectof the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto. Reducing. To be continued soon…

-Brian Tymann

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