Research & Commentary: Plastic Bag Bans

Published April 30, 2012

Following the San Francisco city council’s decision in 2007 to ban the use of plastic bags at grocery stores and chain pharmacies, a number of local governments have implemented similar policies within their jurisdiction. Such polices also have gained traction at the state level, with bills under consideration in several states, including Vermont and Washington.

What is lost in the conversation over plastic bag bans is the fact that the bags are fully recyclable and many consumers repurpose the bags for other uses. A 2007 survey by the American Chemistry Council, a trade organization that represents chemistry-related companies, found 92 percent of consumers reused plastic bags. Although the survey does not give specific information on how often reuse occurs, it indicates many individuals find alternative purposes for their bags beyond a single use.

The practical environmental effects of a ban on plastic bags are much more nuanced than activists admit. Transitioning to paper bags or encouraging recycling over reuse of bags comes with environmental challenges of their own. A study produced by the UK Environment Agency, for example, found replacing a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag with a cotton bag reaches parity in terms of carbon-emissions potential only when used 131 times—and that number is based on the assumption the plastic bag is neither reused nor recycled.

Advocates of bans on plastic bags claim no product that is used for a few minutes of convenience should find its way into our nation’s ecosystem. Environmental activists argue the removal of choice forces consumers to take a virtuous path from which they would otherwise stray. That narrative, however, simply ignores public preference. In 2009, a 20 cent bag tax passed by the Seattle city council was repealed by a voter referendum, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Market advocates point out plastic bag bans infringe on the right of businesses to offer their customers a desired convenience, impose the values of one group on another, and remove individuals’ freedom to choose which product best fits their personal needs and circumstances—all for no appreciable effect on the environment.

The following resources provide additional information about plastic bag bans.

Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags
A report by the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency comparing the environmental impact of different grocery bag materials found, somewhat intuitively, that the more an HDPE plastic bag is reused, the more times alternative bags must be used to reach parity in terms of global warming potential. The study also found reuse and repurposing of plastic bags is better for the environment than recycling.

San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban to Go National?
A March 2012 article at Big Government noted three state legislatures were considering statewide bans on plastic bags and more than 50 municipalities already had taken such action. The story also noted 85 percent of the materials used for plastic bags manufactured in the United States are derived from American natural gas, not imported oil.

Bag the Ban: Learn the Facts
Hilex Poly, a leading manufacturer and recycler of plastic bags, launched the “Bag the Ban” project to raise awareness about initiatives across the nation that would ban or tax the use of plastic bags. The project argues plastic bags do not pose the same risks to human health as reusable bags, in the form of lead and bacterial contamination.

A Sack Standoff in the Checkout Aisle
Reusable bag manufacturer ChicoBag Co. and Hilex Poly settled in September 2011 a legal dispute over competing claims used to justify the relative environmental impacts of their products. The article notes the lack of firm numbers on reuse and recycling from studies conducted independent of stakeholders vested in a given outcome.

Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags—Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper
An industry-funded study produced by a life-cycle analysis consulting firm found polyethylene bags require just 763 mega-joules of energy compared to compostable plastic at 2,070 and partially recycled paper at 2,622. The study also noted plastic bag manufacturing consumes 96 percent less fresh water than recycled paper bags.

Environment Washington Conveniently Ignores Its Own Mantra on Plastic Bags
The city of Seattle passed a ban on plastic bags in December 2011 even after its citizens overruled the council’s 2009 bag tax by voter referendum. Eco-Fads author Todd Myers writes that the push to ban plastic bags is “more about symbolism than environmental impact” and efforts to encourage voluntary recycling would have a greater impact while still allowing consumers a choice at the supermarket.
After becoming frustrated with the lack of centralized resources on the issue, environmental attorney Jennie Romer assembled law review articles, government reports, and industry studies on the issue to help legislators understand their policy options. Romer’s site includes resources for individuals seeking to advocate on behalf of plastic bag restrictions within their communities.

Reuse Plastic Bags: 12 DIY Upcycle Tips
Many people reuse plastic bags to clean up after their pets or as wastebasket liners, and the Huffington Post’s Green section details 12 more unconventional ways to repurpose plastic bags.

For further information on this subject, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, you may contact Heartland energy and environment legislative specialist John Monaghan at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.