Do plastic bags prohibit garbage? : Planet Money: NPR

Plastic bags in a grocery basket.

Fiona Goodall / Getty Images

Plastic bags in a grocery basket.

Fiona Goodall / Getty Images

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It was only around 40 years ago that plastic bags became the norm in American grocery stores. It also made them standard in sewers, dumps, rivers and the big dump in the Pacific. They obstruct the drains and cause floods, litter and wildlife. The national movement to eliminate them is growing – more than 240 cities and counties have passed laws that prohibit or tax them since 2007. Last week, New York became the second US state to ban them. But, these bans can do more harm to the environment than to help it.

Rebecca Taylor, an economist at Sydney University, began studying bag regulation because every time she changed jobs – from Washington, California, California, Australia – bag restrictions were applied soon after . "Yes, these policies could follow me," she jokes. Taylor recently published a study on California bag regulation. It's a classic narrative of unexpected consequences.

Paper or plastic?

Before California banned plastic plastic bags at the end of 2016 nationwide, a wave of 139 Californian cities and counties applied the policy itself. Taylor and his colleagues compared the use of bags in forbidden cities to those who did not. For six months, they spent weekends in grocery stores counting the types of bags that people wore (she admits that those weekends were not the craziest ones). She also analyzed the sales data of these stores.

Taylor discovered that these bans were doing what they were supposed to do. Inhabitants in forbidden cities used fewer plastic bags, reducing an estimated 40 million pounds of plastic waste per year. But people who reuse their bags for commercial purposes, such as picking up dog poop or doubling garbage cans, still need bags. "What I've discovered is that sales of garbage bags have skyrocketed after the ban on plastic grocery bags," she said. This was especially the case for small four-gallon bags, which saw their sales increase 120% after the bans came into effect.

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Garbage bags are thick and use more plastic than conventional shopping bags. "So, about 30% of the plastic eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags," explains Taylor. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags have seen increased use of paper bags, which she says has generated about 80 million pounds of extra paper waste a year.

Passionate about plastic, it's time to get ready. Many studies show that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting and treating trees, which requires a lot of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. Although the paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems related to plastic, the considerable increase in paper consumption, combined with the increase in the filling rate of plastic trash bags, means that the prohibition of Plastic supplies increases greenhouse gas emissions. That said, these bans reduce non-biodegradable waste.

Do tote bags kill us?

What about reusable cloth bags? We know that public radio fans love them! They must be great, right?

Nope. They can be even worse.

A study conducted in 2011 by the British government revealed that a person should reuse his cotton bag 131 times before climate change is better than climate change than using a grocery bag in plastic once. The Danish government has recently conducted a study that considers environmental impacts other than just greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors further aggravate the cloth bags. They feel that you should use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make its use better for the environment.

That said, the Danish government's estimates do not take into account the effects of garbage bags on land and on the sea, where plastic is clearly the worst offender.

Stop getting depressed. What should we do?

The most environmentally friendly way to transport your errands is to use the same bag again and again. According to the Danish study, the best reusable materials are polyester or plastic, such as polypropylene. These still have to be used dozens and dozens of times to be greener than plastic grocery bags, which have the smallest carbon footprint for a single use.

In terms of baggage policy, Taylor says fees are smarter than a ban. She has a second article showing that minimal fees for bags are as effective as a ban when it comes to encouraging the use of reusable bags. However, a fee provides some flexibility to people who reuse plastic bags to get rid of garbage or to walk their dog.

Taylor believes that the recently passed legislation in New York is a bad version of the policy. It only forbids plastic bags and gives free rein to the use of paper bags (counties have the option of imposing a tax of five cents). Taylor fears that this will lead to increased use of paper. The best policy, says Taylor, imposes fees for paper and plastic bags and encourages reuse.

This search for bags makes public radio in love with tricky tote bags, is not it? It might be weird if we started to distribute plastic grocery bags.

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