Plastic Bag Ban Is Not The Right Answer to Curbing Pollution

Carol Park Feb 12, 2020

From flavored tobaccos to helium balloons, Maryland’s 2020 legislative session seems to be all about banning products. State legislators are also considering the Plastics and Packaging Reduction Act (HB 209/SB 313), which proposes a statewide ban of plastic bags at grocery stores. This move follows momentum from Baltimore City’s 2019 ruling to ban plastic bags.


Ban proponents argue that plastic bags end up in landfills and cause ocean pollution, and that production of them contributes to global warming. Understandably so, a ban may appear to be the most intuitive solution. So why have most U.S states not banned plastic bags?


That’s because research suggests that a ban may not be the most effective way to fight the plastic pollution war.


According to a study by Rebecca Taylor, professor at University of Sydney, California’s plastic bag ban was followed by a 120 percent jump in sales of small trash bags. As it turns out, people tend to reuse the so-called “single-use” plastic bags, for instance, to line trash bags. So if Maryland were to ban plastic bags, residents would mostly like also respond by purchasing more trash bags. Economists refer to this phenomenon as “leakage,” when regulation of a product results in increased consumption of an unregulated substitute.


Also, banning plastic bags will only make sense when we find a good substitute that is environmentally friendly. But according to a 2018 study by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, one must use a paper bag 43 times to create less environmental harm compared to using a plastic bag. Another research by David Tyler, professor at University of Oregon, showed that plastic bags take significant less chemicals and water to produce than paper or cotton bags, and the production process emits significantly less greenhouse gas.


Finally, plastic bags in the U.S. cause such a small percentage of the world’s pollution problem that banning them will not even scratch the surface. Some 95 percent of the world’s water pollution comes from 10 rivers that are not located in the Western Hemisphere. And according to the Ocean Cleanup, an environmental non-profit, over half of trash in the Pacific Ocean is made up of fish nets and ropes instead of plastic bags and polystyrene products.


Therefore, if Maryland’s goal is to fight climate change and protect the environment, banning plastic bags is not the right way. Such a policy would only exacerbate Maryland’s image as a nanny state that likes to ban everything, instead of an innovative state that develops intelligent solutions to address them.


To avoid such a fate, Maryland should reject the ban and invest in clever long-term solutions to address difficult environmental challenges. As a state that hopes to lead in technology, Maryland should encourage innovative recycling technology solutions, such as redesigning plastics so they can be readily broken down on a molecular level and manufactured into new plastics of same quality.


After all, the biggest problem with plastics is that they are difficult to recycle. Finding a systematic solution to the plastic problem should involve addressing the recycling challenge, instead of banning the product itself.


Meanwhile, jurisdictions should educate the public about the potential harm from overusing plastic bags, and help consumers make educated decisions about how to safely use and reuse them. As Yale University’s law professor Stephen L. Carter suggests, “Public education is always better than restriction.” When it comes to using plastic bags, he claims that we should be creating “strong norms” instead of imposing bans. “If we can’t protect the environment without constantly reducing the scope of personal freedom, chances are we haven’t thought hard enough.”


Of course, innovative recycling technologies are not going to arrive overnight, and adjusting societal norms about plastic bag use will also take time. However, a lack of patience and unwillingness to educate are not legitimate excuses to ban plastic bags when evidence suggests the ban would not be effective. Protecting the environment is too important of a goal to make hasty and uninformed decisions.