Plastic Bags: on the Verge of Extinction?

Every day millions of Americans can be seen buying groceries, visiting the pharmacy, or shopping for clothes.   They visit a variety of retailers for different purposes, but they all walk out with the same thing: plastic bags.  Plastic bags are so widespread that one may even consider them indispensable.  That’s why the next time you walk up to the check-out counter, you might be surprised to see that these customary items have disappeared.  That is exactly what is happening in more than 50 cities across the state of California.  This trend was inspired by a plastic bag ban that started two years ago, when Washington D.C. discovered that plastic bags account for about half of the waste that ends up in local streams.  Now cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco have taken up the cause.  These policies not only ban plastic bags, they also require customer to pay a 5-10 cent charge for every paper or compostable bag they receive with their purchase (Richtel 2012).  Local officials hope that these policies will encourage people to be more waste conscious.

Disposal Issues

You may be asking yourself, why this sudden attack on plastic bags?  What makes them so bad?  It all comes down to disposal.  Out of the approximately 500 billion plastic bags in distribution each year, less than 4% are recycled (Wagner 2012).  Those that are disposed as municipal waste are either burned or end up in landfills.  Both options have negative effects on the environment.  Plastic bags are made from petroleum and toxic chemicals.  These toxins are released into the atmosphere each time these bags are burned (“Why Ban” 2012).  But landfills aren’t the solution either.  Since plastic is not biodegradable, when it’s sent to a landfill, it stays there.  Unfortunately, these are not the only two ways that bags are disposed of.  Millions of plastic bags end up in the oceans, causing the deaths of marine mammals who mistake them for food (Wagner 2012).  If this problem isn’t resolved, it can have a considerable amount of impact on natural life.

Ban Faces Resistance

Since plastic bags seem to cause so many problems, you might expect there to be an overwhelming support for these bans.  But that isn’t the case.  There are people who are skeptical about how much of an effect this ban will have on the environment.  They wonder whether these benefits are enough to overcome the costs.  Although a 10 cent charge per bag might not seem like a lot, for a working class family living paycheck to paycheck, it certainly takes a toll.  And it isn’t just customers who are upset; some retailers are also speaking out against these policies.  “Higher-end” stores have complained that it seems ridiculous to charge someone 10 cents for a bag, after they just spent hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a product (Richtel 2012).  But the ban is not optional.  Retailers and customers alike are required to comply.

Reusable is the Way to Go

Clearly the ban on plastic bags has stirred up some controversy, but if we weigh the costs and the benefits it seems that this policy is for the best.  The challenge will be to get people to adopt new habits.  Plastic bags are mostly for convenience sake and it will take some time for us to get used to not having this commodity.  But just like with all change, it will eventually blend into the status quo and we won’t see it as a burden.  Nevertheless, the plastic bag ban policies can be further improved.  Although paper bags pose less harm than plastic ones, they aren’t free of repercussions.  After all, it takes a lot of trees and energy to manufacture them.  For now, it seems that the best option is reusable.  So on your next trip to the supermarket, save yourself a few cents and remember to bring along a reusable bag.




    Although it’s true that such a small charge on bags seems a little silly at times, I think the larger impact of the tax can be seen by the fact that we’re having this discussion. Environmentalists have been using reusable bags for years, but the tax has really brought the issue to the minds of everyday shoppers. When it takes such little effort to buy a few canvas bags to avoid the fee, I think that any publicity is good publicity. As more and more people are carrying reusables, it also creates a standard that makes plastic bag users self-conscious (I think there was a Modern Family quote something to the effect of “I haven’t felt so judged since I forgot my canvas bags at Whole Foods” that displays this point nicely). Although making people feel uncomfortable sounds bad, it’s a net benefit if we can reduce some of that plastic in our landfills and water ecosystems (that DC number was really mindblowing- 50%!!).


  2. Dhrusti Patel

    To me, it’s interesting that cities in California banned plastic bags altogether rather than charging the small fee per use. I would think that charging a small fee per plastic bag would be both a more flexible and cost-effective option. Do you know why California decided to ban plastic bags all together and essentially how it passed, despite it being a more stringent option?


  3. Sophie Vos

    I had never heard of this ban on plastic bags and 10 cent charge on paper bags until this past summer, when I spent 3 months out in California. You can imagine my surprise when I went grocery shopping for the first time and all of a sudden was paying for bags. Once this ban/charge becomes an accepted fact and bringing a reusable bag in integrated into human habit, I believe that it will be an effect way to reduce waste. This is much easier said than done, however. For high-end retailers that feel silly charging a few cents for a bag after a customer has spent hundreds or thousands of dollars, what about a program where the retailer pays the government a certain amount of money to be allowed to freely distribute a certain amount of bags? This could introduce a cap-and-trade type system where there is a finite limit of the total number of bags that can be distributed, and different retailers can buy/sell bag ‘allowances’?

  4. Lauren

    I recently did a project on the privatization of water in which I explored how some campuses are advocating for a ban on plastic water bottles. I couldn’t help but relate this to the topic of plastic bags on a national (or at least state/ local scale in california). I am unaware of this ban on plastic bags, but would definitely be willing to pay 10 cents per bag. The stigma surrounding the use of plastic is definitely culturally prevalent. It is noticeable in grocery stores such as whole foods, and is even a “fad” for some higher-end clothing designers. Although from my perspective I see acting “benign” to the environment of greater importance, through working on my other project and reading your blog I agree that there need to be “consequences” that are incorporated in order to sufficiently incentivize people to stop using plastic and use alternatives. The convenience of using plastic products that is habitually ingrained for most of us is the biggest feat legislation has to overcome in my opinion, not necessarily rallying support surrounding it.

  5. Olivia Shepard

    I agree with Sophie and Lauren that the trick to successfully implementing policies that prohibit plastic water bottles and/or plastic shopping bags is making these habits second nature to consumers. The best solutions are the ones that require no additional effort to the consumer. When the “clean” alternative is as easy to do as the “dirty” one, the majority of citizens will choose to help the environment if it makes no difference economically or otherwise on their end. We cannot wait around for “the next big thing” that will make strides in the global environmental situation. We have yet to find a quick fix for climate change and pollution so, at least for the moment, the greatest impact will be from many people adopting several smaller solutions- think adjusting the thermostat, recycling, using CFLs, and yes, using reusable shopping bags. One thing I do wonder about though, is the cost benefit analysis of disposable vs reusable bags. The reusable bags sold in many stores as alternatives to the disposable ones require more plastic to make, and if people forget to bring their own bags to the store and must buy new reusable bags frequently, at a certain point the advantage is lost.


    I was actually involved in a demonstration and city hearing in Portland last summer regarding a plastic bag ban in Portland. Portland was pursuing the ban after the state legislature was unable to reach a decision about what to do statewide. I know Washington D.C. has a plastic bag 5 cent charge as well even on the plastic bags used for sandwiches at Subway, which I thought was really interesting. While the charge incentivized me not to get a plastic bag, I think the charge does not do as much prevention as a flat out ban. The people who are consuming the most plastic bags will not be deterred by a 5 or 10 cent charge. So, I think a ban, despite the fact that it is not an economic-based solution, is more effective in reducing plastic bag consumption. In addition, many of the bans are not universal, and consumers can still utilize plastic bags they already have. I know i still keep and reuse many of the plastic bags I have if I am unable to use a reusable bag at the time. I think a ban is more likely to create a culture shift like Lauren discussed as opposed to a charge that doesn’t significantly change behavior. A reusable bag may cost someone $5 and they probably only would spend $30-40 a year with a 5 or 10 cent charge. IT is not a significant enough cost saving to change behavior in the end, at least in my opinion.


    I appreciate that you take a second to consider the affect on lower income families because I feel like at Duke we are get stuck in the bubble of free t-shirts, random pizza parties, and the fake-money-debit-card system billed to our Bursars where balances magically disappear. In order for environmental regulation to be affective we have to do it in a way that minimizes extra costs for those that simply can’t afford to pay more, and I believe this is a valid idea. Most super markets sell these reusable bags for about $1 or even give them away at certain times. Even if you are not using an “official grocery store reusable bag” most people can probably get there hands on something to cary their groceries until they can pay $1 for a bag or get it for free. Ideas like this are small, but just like negative environmental impacts, positive environmental action adds up.

  8. Jacob Crabtree

    I wonder where the rest of the plastic bags go if only 4% are recycled? Although I’m sure a large proportion end up in landfills, I would also wager that a nontrivial percentage is actually reused. I know that I have a drawer full of disposable bags that I keep for a variety of uses. If this is the case on a larger scale, I think that this is an encouraging sign that people, given the correct incentives, would be amenable to adopting bags that are explicitly designed to be reused. However, I’m concerned that charging people is not the correct incentive. People have been shown to react much better to being rewarded than to being punished. If stores gave a credit for bringing a reusable bag, such as Whole Foods does, people could potentially adopt reusable bags much more quickly and permanently.

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