Posted on December 11th, 2012

Outside the Box – Banning Plastic Bags

Over the last decade, there has been much uproar over the use of plastic bags at grocery and retail stores. Often referred to as single-use bags, they are known to take an extraordinarily long time to break down in landfills. There isn’t a commonly agreed upon length of time, but estimates vary between 500 and 1,000 years. To make these estimates, scientists use respirometry tests. The test gives newspapers a life-cycle of 2-5 months, whereas a banana peel takes a few days. When the test is applied to traditional plastic bags you find at grocery stores, there is no decomposition or carbon dioxide production. This is caused by its polyethylene composition, a man-made polymer that bacteria don’t recognize as food. Plastic bags are only broken down in a process called photodecomposition which will eventually lead to its dissolution into microscopic granules – hence the 500-1,000 year estimate.

In 2007, San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags. Before the ban, there were an estimated 180 million bags distributed to shoppers in San Francisco every year. According to an EPA study in 2001, there are an estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags consumed every year throughout the world. Of these bags, between 1-3% end up outside the landfill stream resulting in numerous problems, including clogged drains and consumption by fish, reptiles and animals which results in an early, painful death.

This past May, Los Angeles became the largest city in the world to ban plastic bags. On the docket was also a ban for paper bags, but council members backed away from that thinking it was too severe. That would have required patrons to provide their own reusable bags, or to find other methods of transporting their purchases. That is a fight for another day.

Not everyone is for the ban on plastic bags however. Many people who work for the companies that make the bags fear losing their jobs. Advocates for the industry think there should not be a ban, but a plan to increase reuse and recycling of the bags. Targeting the ordinance in San Francisco, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition says that paper and compostable bags are “significantly worse for the environment” than plastic bags; and that attempts to impose a 10-cent fee on each paper or compostable bag is too low to encourage people to use reusable bags.


The Golden Gate Bridge is a marvel of American infrastructure and ingenuity. Leading into one of the most progressive cities in the country, and perhaps the world, you will not see cargo trucks bringing bundles of plastic bags for dispersal at retail outlets any longer. Image captured November 3, 2012 by the 50-cm satellite, WorldView-2. Image courtesy DigitalGlobe and PhotoEnhanced by Apollo Mapping.

The Film and Bag Federation says that plastic bags consume 40% less energy, generate 80% less solid waste, produce 70% fewer emissions and release 94% fewer waterborne wastes than paper bags. The cost for retailers is a large issue as well. The average plastic bag costs a retailer only 1-cent, whereas a paper bag costs 4-cents.

But as we all know, there are always two sides to every story. The majority opinion seems to run with the push for greater environmental regulations. And while opponents on both sides admit that government intervention isn’t always necessary in regulations, advocates for the banning of plastic bags think that intervention is warranted because of the significant economic and environmental devastation they cause. So for now, the issue is not “in the bag,” but the majority are in favor of limiting the destruction that plastic bags can cause.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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