As the Texas Supreme Court will soon make its decision regarding the legality of plastic bag regulations in Texas, this is a good time to revisit the arguments used to promote plastic bag bans. A review of the data shows that plastic bag regulations don’t reduce litter overall — and, in fact, they incentivize products that have far greater environment impacts.
In Austin, a city-commissioned study shows that the amount of bag plastic used actually increased after the ban was passed because residents and businesses were forced to purchase thicker plastic bags for discarding trash that they had been disposing of using plastic grocery bags. This has resulted in a greater amount of plastic in landfills each year.
A statewide survey of litter at 253 sites throughout Texas in 2013 showed that plastic grocery bags comprised less than two percent of all litter. Litter surveys conducted in other states show similar results. In fact, dry cleaner bags and commercial shrink wrap, sometimes visually equated to plastic grocery bags, were actually more prominent in litter than the plastic grocery bags themselves.
Life cycle analyses, which take into account the costs and environmental impacts of manufacturing paper, plastic and reusable bags, consistently prove that plastic retail bags have the lowest impact on the environment. This fact was most recently brought to light in studies commissioned by Denmark and Quebec.
The Quebec report notes that “the conventional plastic bag(‘s) … production requires little material and energy. It also avoids the production and purchase of garbage/bin liner bags since it benefits from a high reuse rate when used for this purpose (77.7 percent).”
This corresponds to a study conducted by APCO Insight, which showed that 93 percent of shoppers reuse their plastic grocery bags and that 65 percent reuse them for trash can liners and trash disposal.
The Quebec study concludes that “the consumer is the stakeholder benefiting from this gain.” But, the environment benefits as well.
The report finds that the cotton bag would require “between 100 and 2,954 uses for its environmental impact to be equivalent to the environmental impacts of the conventional plastic bag.”
Reusable bags — woven polypropylene, one of the most commonly used — “must be used at least 35 to 75 times so that their impacts on Life Cycle Environmental Indicators are equivalent to or better than those of the conventional plastic bag.”
The Denmark report notes that with regards to production and disposal, plastic grocery bags “are the carriers providing the overall lowest environmental impacts for most environmental indicators.”
The study further reports that a cotton bag would have to be reused at least 7,100 times to offset its higher environmental impacts compared to a plastic bag. These impacts include climate change, ozone depletion and freshwater eutrophication.
Although plastic bag regulations may reduce the visibility of plastic shopping bags, they only address a portion of plastic film found in litter — and do so at a high cost to the environment, causing more significant impacts to climate change, terrestrial acidification and the quality of our water resources.
Stein is the principal of Environmental Resources Planning in Maryland.