Each year, Americans consume over 100 billion single use plastic bags, the most ubiquitous of all throwaway items. Their usefulness can be measured in minutes; unfortunately, the waste lingers longer, and can clog sewer lines, create problems in recycling plants, and pollute waterways. However, single use plastic bags are also cost-effective and more durable in inclement weather.
Local, state, and national governments are trying to manage single use plastic bag waste, using bans, fees, improved recycling and compostable bags. Nongovernmental organizations and environmental activists are pressuring the government to reduce plastic bag consumption, promoting measures that industry and retail organizations sometimes oppose. Key questions raised include how plastic bags are being used, why they are being used, and most important, what do we do with them once they have been used?
Plastic Bag Policy Measures
When weighing the pros and cons of managing plastic bags, one option is an outright ban. Another is assessing a fee or tax on plastic bags; this can reduce single-use bag consumption while allowing customers to choose if they want a plastic bag. According to Romer and Tamminen (2014), charging for plastic bags has a greater impact on reduction because it incentivizes behavioral change and forces customers to make a conscious decision to purchase a bag. The last option is voluntary take-back/recycling programs to address plastic bags at the end of their useful cycle.
A research project was conducted to understand the effectiveness of bans, taxes and take-back/recycling programs. U.S. communities that have taken plastic bag action were studied, examining motivating factors, whether it was a local or state effort, and patterns between communities. Phone interviews were conducted with municipal representatives, and the researchers studied news articles and public opinion, and reviewed local legislation and revenue documents (McLaughlin, 2016).
Case studies from 13 locations were selected based on availability of information, supplemented by online data. The case studies fell into the three types of programs:
Bans: Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; State of Hawaii; Westport, Connecticut; Alameda County, California
Take-Back/Recycling: State of Delaware; State of Rhode Island; Phoenix, Arizona; Brooklyn, New York
Plastic Bag Taxes: Washington, D.C.; Portland, Maine; Breckenridge, Colorado; Montgomery County, Maryland.
Reasons for policy initiation included concern about environmental impacts, citizen welfare, impacts to waterways, litter, storm water infrastructure impairment, and the excessive use of plastic bags overall. For example, in Montgomery County, the watershed was so polluted with litter that it violated the Clean Water Act.
The bans examined varied widely in implementation and detail. In Alameda County, the details of the regulation were explicit; however, in Austin, a reverse incentive occurred. Its ban exempted plastic bags that are 4 mil in thickness or greater with handles, as well as paper bags made of 40 percent recycled content with handles. Austin’s ban led to a reduction in plastic bags covered by the ordinance, but an increase in larger, ban-exempt 4 mil or greater plastic bags (Waters, 2015). In Portland, Oregon, reusable checkout bag use increased 304 percent while paper checkout bag use increased 491 percent (Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 2012). The Westport, Connecticut’s conservation director noted, “businesses have adjusted well, consumers took to the ban with only a bit of early grumbling, and the amount of loose bag trash has definitely dropped” (Hladky, 2014).
Take Back/Recycling Programs
In Brooklyn, prior to implementation of a recycling program, plastic bags were getting stuck in recycling equipment. After the installation of ballistic separators — which act as a series of sieves and shakers to remove 2-dimensional materials from 3-dimensional containers — plastic bags can be recycled more easily. While some bags still get caught in the system, it is working well to handle the large amount of plastic bags that go along with the population density in the City (Green in Bklyn, n.d.).
In Delaware, all plastic bags must be labeled “Please Return This Bag to a Participating Store for Recycling” or similar language to encourage reuse and recycling; stores are required to offer reusable bags to consumers. The voluntary recycling program is not doing enough on its own and Delaware is considering imposing a fee on plastic bags, with revenue raised used to help stores fund their existing recycling programs (Willing, 2015). Rhode Island’s “ReStore” program was very well received and was initially voluntary for the consumer, and mandatory for commercial facilities to participate. Bags are taken back essentially everywhere in Rhode Island and the program is considered a success.
Phoenix partnered with the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance to encourage voluntary participation from its grocer members. Retailers still support the program eight years after implementation. The Public Works Department uses its quarterly Customer Service Survey to gather community input and determine education effectiveness. Plastic bag use at stores has dropped by 12 percent, 1,300 tons of plastic bags have been captured annually by six grocery store chains, and there was a 20 percent decline in plastic bags brought to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).