Banning the Bags

© Bhutan Excursions

Cities across the U.S. are instituting plastic bag bans beginning in 2011 and 2012. Plastic bags have long been an environmental problem—their petroleum-based film can be seen littering streets, clogging landfills where they will never biodegrade or washing out to sea, where they end up killing marine birds, turtles and other wildlife that mistake the bags for food.

Brownsville, Texas, passed this year’s first plastic bag ban on January 5, 2011. Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, said tourists once called the city’s numerous plastic bags “Texas wildflowers.” Since passing the ban, the town has eliminated more than 350,000 plastic bags per day, according to Mayor Pat Ahumada, who told the New York Times that the ban has “transformed our city from littered and dirty to a much cleaner city.”

Telluride, Colorado, eliminated plastic bags from its stores on March 1, 2011 with a town-wide prohibition declaring that, “disposable plastic bags shall not be sold or distributed, retail or wholesale, within town limits by any business.” Los Angeles stopped providing disposable plastic bags in 67 large supermarkets and pharmacies on July 1 of this year. By January 2012, the ban will cover about 1,000 smaller stores. Paper bags will still be available, but customers will be charged a 10 cent fee per bag.

And beginning this October, major grocers in Portland, Oregon, will discontinue the use of most plastic grocery bags. The ban targets supermarkets with $2 million or more in gross annual sales as well as stores with pharmacies and at least 10,000 square feet of space, such as Target and Walmart. Portland’s ban doesn’t eliminate all plastic bags in large retailers, however. They will still be allowed for bagging produce, meat and bulk food at grocery stores and pharmacists dispensing medicine may use plastic bags to protect a customer’s privacy.

Those who support complete plastic bag bans believe that kicking the plastic habit completely doesn’t have to compromise food safety or personal privacy. In the place of plastic, they encourage customers to use washable cloth bags for carrying deli and meat items and bringing along any type of reusable bag to carry private pharmacy items if needed.

“Reusable grocery bags are safe, but you do need to keep them clean,” said Pam Schmutz, Clemson University Home and Garden Information Center food safety specialist. “Hand or machine-wash them in hot, soapy water at least once a week. After washing, machine dry or turn inside out and hang dry. That will reduce the number of bacteria inside and outside the bag by more than 99.9 percent.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 9% of plastics bags, sacks and wraps were recycled in 2009—a staggeringly low amount considering most major grocers have plastic bag recycling bins on site.

Mark Gold, president of the Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay, has said that previous efforts to promote plastic bag recycling at his local grocery stores have been a failure. “You cannot recycle your way out of the plastic bag problem,” Gold said. “The cost of convenience can no longer be at the expense of the environment.”

Steve Fenberg, Executive Director and founder of New Era Colorado is pushing for a plastic bag ban in Boulder, where he says the small in-store credit to shoppers who don’t use plastic bags is not effective enough in promoting the use of reusable bags. “Oil byproducts like petroleum are used to make these plastic bags and oil is expensive—it’s getting more expensive and it should simply not be used in creating something as frivolous and wasteful as these bags. And in Boulder alone we use 40-50 million of these bags a year and that’s just one small city.”