Banning Plastic Bags – Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Banning Plastic Bags

by Nora Shafie, Staff Contributor

Paper or plastic? This is a question many people in the United States are accustomed to being asked when checking out at the grocery store. Most people mindlessly make their selection and go on their way. But what happens to those bags when they get home? Most likely, they are thrown away, because by the time you get home there is already a gaping hole in some, and others are packed so heavily that the handles are stretched to the limits – giving you just enough time to make it to your front door.

However, the more important question is: what happens to those bags once they are thrown out? Most Americans expect the trash collectors to come by their house once per week and carry their trash away to some landfill that they will probably never see. Unfortunately, a great amount of trash does not always make it to its intended destination, and instead ends up in drains and sewers, ultimately making its way into our waterways.

“A great amount of trash ends up in drains and sewers, ultimately making its way into our waterways.”

Regardless of the end destination, the problems plastic bags cause originate from the same reason – they do not break down easily. Although various news sources have reported that it takes an estimated 500 years for a plastic back to break down, it is currently unknown exactly how long the process takes, as plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years. What is known for sure is that they take a very long time to decompose, and therefore, are taking up significant space in landfills and causing harm to waterways and wildlife.

If plastic bags are so harmful, why are they still being used? Many people would argue that their convenience is reason enough, but that convenience may not be around for much longer. Action has been taken by several states, and European countries, to enact legislation banning or mandating payment for plastic bags. Most recently, California has become the first state to pass a bill that will ban the use of plastic bags in the entire state by July 1, 2015. The ban comes after restrictions already in place by many cities and counties within the state. In giving reason for the ban Governor Jerry Brown said,

“This bill is a step in the right direction – it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself.”

Although California is the first state as a whole to enact legislation banning plastic bags, other cities such as Austin, Texas have taken action to ban the use of plastic bags. Perhaps also on the road to banning plastic bags, the District of Columbia charges five cents per bag, and other states, such as Delaware, now require that stores which use plastic bags must implement a recycling program encouraging customers to bring back the bags they used. In addition, the European Parliament has voted to reduce the amount of plastic bag use through the implementation of bans and taxes.

Though some states, cities, and even countries are taking action to mitigate this problem, significant action remains to be taken by the vast majority of the United States. The good news is that action can be taken at the individual level, simply by bringing reusable bags to the store. Although an adjustment at first, the harm that plastic bags cause substantially outweighs the “inconvenience” of reusable ones.