Plastic Bag Bans Don’t Work

person holding fruits in a plastic bag - Plastic Bag Bans Don't Work
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Plastic Bag Bans Don’t Work

In 2019, Connecticut implemented legislation to ban plastic bags.

For the first two years, retailers were still allowed to provide plastic bags for a fee of 10 cents each. The plan seemed to work at first. I remember watching shoppers juggle wares in their arms and hold them in their shirts in lieu of purchasing a plastic bag.

As of late 2021, disposable plastic bags (as defined by the legislation) are no longer allowed to be provided at retail establishments.

The objective of the ban was simple: reduce the use of single-use plastic bags.

The ban was introduced by environmentally-minded folks who hoped to reduce consumer reliance on single-use plastics that pollute the local landscape and jam the works at recycling centers.

It’s a great idea in theory, but I’m not sure it worked.

Why the Bag Ban May Be Worse for the Environment

I suspect that legislators assumed that a simple bag ban would result in more customers bringing their own reusable bags. They probably thought retailers would offer biodegradable paper bags as an alternative (which still has downsides).

But there was a loophole in the original legislation that has potentially made the plastic bag ban worse for the environment: it doesn’t actually require a more eco-friendly alternative.

In the original legislation, disposable plastic bags are defined as:

…bags with a thickness of less than four (4.0) mils that are provided by a store to a customer at the point of sale

State of Connecticut

As a result of this narrow definition, retailers have responded in some disastrous ways:

Problem 1: Thicker Plastic Bags

Immediately after the bag fee went through, some grocery stores dealt with consumer pushback over the bag fee by offering “reusable” plastic bags.

Technically known as Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags, some stores call these “bags for life.” These were thicker, sturdier bags that customers could theoretically reuse on their next visits to the store. The only problem is that they didn’t have the versatility of a reusable tote and many customers didn’t reuse them.

According to the UK’s Environment Agency, thick plastic bags must be used at least 4 times to measure up to the relatively low-impact of a single-use plastic bag.

Problem 2: Woven Reusable Totes

It gets worse. After plastic bags were phased out at local Targets, they responded by replacing disposables with free woven reusable bags.

These bags, called Woven polypropylene (PP) bags, are the ones typically marketed as reusable bags. Ranging from rigid to soft, they are offered for sale at many store checkout lanes.

When customers check out, they are immediately offered these totes by employees. I saw almost no one use their own reusable bag on my last few visits.

Non-cotton woven bags must be used at least 11 times to compare to disposable plastic bags.

Cotton bags are even worse, needing to be used 131 times to compare.

When single-use plastic bags are replaced with alternatives that require more resources during production and take even more time to break down, it is easy to see that the bag ban hasn’t done its job.

Even if the above alternatives are used multiple times, customers are already inundated with more reusable bags than they need. With few recycling options, many of these bags are simply thrown away.

Have Plastic Bag Bans Worked Elsewhere?

It depends. Many bag ban effectiveness surveys have been conducted, with varying conclusions.

In regions where bag bans have been put into effect without retailer-provided alternatives, they do seem to encourage customers to bring their own totes.

When retailers are allowed to provide alternatives, however, many choose to offer thick plastic bags. As previously noted, this makes the problem worse.

Some environmentally-conscious regions – like California and Portland, Oregon – seem to benefit more from widespread consumer interest in single-use plastic reduction than legislation.

Additionally, bag legislation seems to be more effective in areas that are directly impacted by the negative impacts of plastic pollution, such as Australia and the Philippines.

Across the board, however, bag taxes and fees that are passed on to the consumer at point-of-sale ARE effective at reducing single-use plastic bag use.

So, if you’re thinking about supporting a plastic bag ban, think again. Bag fees are far more effective.

More in Zero Waste

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Interesting. In my state, NY, retailers have to charge for a bag and can only offer paper or the thicker ones you mention. I normally bring my own bags. The good thing about the legislation is that retailers no longer look at me as though I have three heads or act annoyed when I bring my own bags. The bad thing is that when I forget bags, the replacement bags are often not very good. For example, my local grocery store only has paper bags with no handle. I wouldn’t mind paying more for a bag with a handle, but they don’t offer those. Walking the mile home with my groceries in a bag with no handle is a pain, and sometimes my shoulders even end up hurting.

    Since NY does require retailers to charge for the bags, I am curious about the results of our bag ban.

  2. Nuanced and practical. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

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