Los Angeles recently became California’s 48th city/county (and the largest in the nation) to approve banning plastic bags at retail checkouts, joining other cities including Washington, D.C. and Seattle. The ban, which is ultimately designed to encourage wider adoption of reusable bags, requires retailers to charge customers 10 cents for each paper bag they use. To many environmentalists, this law sounds like a good idea. After all, plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose and can be harmful to wildlife. But, critics also have cogent arguments against the measure, citing the comparatively high amount of energy and raw materials necessary to produce paper versus plastic bags, and the high break-even point of reusable bags. Click here for a quick rundown of the paper vs. plastic debate.
An op-ed against the ban in the Wall Street Journal referred to a 2011 U.K. Environment Agency report to refute the benefits touted by the ban’s supporters. Results from the study showed that paper bags had a worse impact on the environment than plastic bags in each of the nine categories analyzed (a few of them included global warming, human toxicity, and marine aquatic ecotoxicity). The study also found that a reusable bag would have to be used a median of 314 times before it could offset the environmental impact of using plastic bags. Unfortunately, the breakeven point of 314 uses far surpasses the average lifetime of a reusable bag, which is just 52 uses.
Nonetheless, supporters of the ban have some persuasive statistics of their own. Jennine Romer, founder of PlasticBagLaws.org, says that the paper bag fee has led to a 94 percent decline in their use, thereby largely sidestepping the paper vs. plastic debate. The ban also addresses the dismal recycling rate of plastic bags (under 5 percent in California) as another reason to have them outlawed. Furthermore, Los Angeles City staff estimate that plastic bags cost consumers and taxpayers a ton of money—over $75 million per year due to higher grocery and environmental cleanup costs.