The ban on plastic bag bans in the state of Pennsylvania has expired this month, resulting in a resurgence of interest in banning single use plastic bags in the region in favor of paper or re-usable bags. New Jersey has already enacted a ban on bags and made straws request-only. The cities of Philadelphia and West Chester have also enacted ordinances. The borough of Media is likewise considering an ordinance and has sparked a conversation in neighboring municipalities.
Wikipedia has a good summary of the issues at stake. Eliminating single use bags is seen as an important step towards zero waste because they generate problems at every stage of their existence. Plastic production creates a great deal of pollution and carbon emissions. Studies I’ve seen quoted say that a re-usable bag would have to be used 131 times to offset their cost of production. The bags we’ve been reusing over the past 10-20 years have been used far more than 131 times. They’ve become a historical record of the grocery stores our family has shopped at, usually buying one new one every few years as needed. They have more than compensated for the resources that went into creating them. And, at the end of their life, they can be composting.
Single use bags, however, are used once or maybe twice at most and then discarded. Often they are discarded out of car windows or caught up by wind. They are a significant source of the litter that is picked up regularly by groups like CAT and the CRC. Those that aren’t collected enter the streams and waterways and are known to collect in the ocean. These bags are a frequent hazard to wildlife that gets entangled by them or causes them to drown. From the water and air, plastics are entering our bodies as well.
Single use plastics are largely unrecyclable. They interfere with most single stream recycling programs and are hard to find further use for. My wife followed a pattern to weave plastic bags into baskets, which has some use. How many plastic bag baskets do you need though? Most plastic bags are destined for the incinerator. There the chemicals that went into the bags are either spewed into the air or turned into ash, which ultimately ends up in landfills. Plastics do not biodegrade easily, they turn into smaller pieces of plastic. While the fossil record of the mid-1900s will be a layer marked by radiation, our contribution will be a layer of plastic waste and evidence of rapid climate change.
Ordinances passed in other cities and states have provided useful lessons in how to write ordinances so that stores don’t shift to “reusable” thicker plastic bags or other pitfalls that end up resulting in more plastic production. While paper bags do not cause the environmental damage that plastics do, and can be composting or recycled, they do take more energy to create and cost more. Many ordinances call for fees for single use paper bags to discourage their use as well. Cotton bags are even more expensive to create in the short term, but are biodegradable and can be usable for decades providing a much longer term solution. With towns like Media likely adopting these ordinances in 2022, its likely to be a topic of conversation in nearby municipalities this year. This will be an important first step toward implementing the Zero Waste resolution the township passed this year.