The Impact of the Plastic Bag Ban
With the ban on single-use plastic bags now firmly on the books in California, you might be wondering what kind of impact this will have. To answer that question, it’s worth exploring what kind of impact these bags have had on our environment and economy in the past. Let’s take a brief look at the history of plastic bags in America.
Single-use plastic grocery bags were introduced as an alternative to paper bags in 1977. As of 2016, 90 percent of all grocery bags were plastic. Until the plastic bag ban was passed, Californians were using 13 billion to 20 billion plastic bags every year, and only 3 percent of them were recycled.
Plastic Bags Contribute to Oil Dependence
Thin, single-use plastic bags are a petroleum-based product, so they contribute to U.S. oil dependence and accelerate climate change. An estimated 12 million barrels of petroleum oil are used to produce 100 billion plastic bags.
Plastic Bags Cause Marine Pollution
After 40 years of escalating plastic bag use in America, we have learned a lot about their impact on our environment. They make their way into our waterways and ultimately contribute to marine pollution. Plastic bags do not biodegrade, but instead break down into smaller pieces, which is devastating for marine life. Turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them.
Birds are drawn to them because the bacteria that clings to their natural food source also clings to the plastic. The result is that many marine animals are consuming so much indigestible plastic that they feel full but are actually starving because what they consume has no nutritional value.
Additionally, animals get trapped in plastic and cannot get free, resulting in impaired movement or death.
The Ocean Conservancy estimates that plastic bags kill 1 million seabirds and 100,000 other animals worldwide each year. We spend roughly $428 million each year to protect our waters from litter, and up to 25 percent of that is attributable to plastic bags alone.
Plastic Bags Are Difficult and Expensive to Recycle
Thin plastic bags are rarely recycled and are difficult to manage in the waste stream. They easily float out of garbage trucks and blow across transfer stations and landfills. Processing plastic bags is difficult as well, with waste sorting machines often jammed or gummed up with plastic bags, causing damage and facility downtime.
Sacramento has reported shutting down sorting equipment 6 times a day to remove plastic bags at its recycling facility. San Joseestimated an annual loss of $1 million each year due to plastic bag repairs in its facilities. This is important because achieving the benefits of recycling—such as resource conservation, clean alternative energy and the slowing of climate change—relies in part on maintaining the financial viability of recycling-based enterprises.
A Future Without Single-Use Carryout Bags
People are quickly adjusting to the plastic bag ban and bringing reusable bags with them to the grocery store. It’s a small step that will make a big impact for this generation and those to come.