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How plastic bag bans really work to limit plastic pollution

Over 23 billion plastic bags are used each year in the state of New York, and officials with the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are trying to change that. Starting March 1, the Bag Waste Reduction Law will take effect to reduce the amount of litter in the state, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and solve some of the problems that come with recycling the these plastic bags. The new law will make New York the third state in the U.S. to have a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Single-use plastic bags caught the DEC's attention years ago as officials considered what to do about all the litter.

"Throughout New York State, plastic bags have become a ubiquitous sight on the landscape," reported the department in 2018. "They can be seen stuck in trees, as litter in our neighborhoods, floating in our waterways, and as a general aesthetic eyesore of our environment. [...] From the significant recycling and disposal issues they pose as litter, and the harm they create to wildlife, their negative impacts can be seen daily."

However, after years of recycling initiatives, plastic bags have proven a tricky enemy to fight. Recycling the bags, according to the DEC, is no small feat; the nature of the bags creates "tangles and jams in recycling and waste water processing equipment." This can make it expensive for municipalities and recycling plants to manage. Previous programs that tried to curb plastic bag waste — like labeling bags with the phrase, "Please Return to a Participating Store for Recycling" and providing drop-off locations at certain locations — have only reduced the use of single-use plastic bags by five percent.

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The DEC recommended a stronger effort to curb people's reliance on single-use plastic, which resulted in the plastic bag ban. The new law will effect many businesses, large and small, as well as their customers. People are expected to bring their own reusable bags, switch to paper bags (for a fee of $0.05 per bag), or carry their items if they're small enough.

Some folks, including businesses, have protested the ban. They argue that paper bags can be more expensive for small businesses and are just as environmentally destructive as plastic bags. Critics also fear that banning single-use bags will force people to turn to thicker plastic bags to line their small trashcans with. And there are others who call this another attempt to blame consumers for something corporations and governments should take responsibility for.

So, the question is, do plastic bag bans actually work?

Plastic bags harm the environment and our health

Before getting to whether bans work, why should people stop using plastic bags in the first place? One major reason is because of the environmental damage plastics cause. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that 80 percent of all plastic pollution in the ocean, which includes plastic bags, started as trash dumped on land. And it's a hell of a lot of trash.

"Almost all plastic trash produced ends up in our oceans," according to stats provided by Arcadia Earth, an interactive sustainability museum in New York City. "An estimated 4-12 million metric ton of plastic every year — the equivalent to one truckload every minute — is dumped into the ocean. If we continue at this rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish."

In the ocean, the plastic bags break down from the waves and winds but never truly go away. Instead, they become small, nearly invisible fragments called microplastics. These tiny plastics have been found to have a direct impact on the health of humans and wildlife.

"Microplastics are entering our food chain, contaminating the environment and air we breathe," installations at Arcadia Earth detail. "Microplastics were found in 94 percent of drinking water, 100 percent of beer and salt, and 25 percent of fish sold in markets, according to tests conducted in the U.S.

"Globally," according to Arcadia Earth, "the average person unintentionally consumes the equivalent of a credit card of microplastics every week."

The damage plastic bags cause starts way before they're even made, too. Plastics are created from fossil fuels that require fracking and extraction from the ground, usually resulting in the destruction of the local environment. Then, the raw materials go to production centers that pump out greenhouse gases during the refining and manufacturing process. Finally, they become plastic waste that can last for over 450 years. According to The Center for International Environmental Law, plastic poses a risk to the planet at every step of its lifecycle; from its creation to its eventual disposal.

The Rainbow Cave at Arcadia Earth was created by artist Basia Goszczynska and designed to celebrate the ban on plastic bags by New York state lawmakers. The cave is made with 44,000 plastic bags (the amount used in New York every minute) salvaged from indigo plastics and reclaimed fishing nets.

Plastic bag bans have worked, but with a catch

In its 2018 report, the DEC found that plastic bags can cause long-term damage to the environment and peoples' health. Yet residents, on average, only use the bags for about 15 minutes. Education, outreach, and take-back programs have failed to inspire people to reduce their dependence on plastic. So, the department turned to a full-on ban.

Some consultants argue that these plastic bag bans don't work. In April 2019, NPR asked about New York's Bag Waste Reduction Law in an interview with University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor, who looked into how well these bans worked. Although the overall use of single-use plastic bags decreased with similar bans in other cities, she found an unintended side-effect: a significant increase in trash bag purchases.

"So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags," Taylor told NPR. Additionally, she noted, paper bag usage soared, creating an estimated "80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year." Which is not good, to say the least, because the process of creating that paper also destroys trees and pumps carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The only real advantage paper has over plastic is the fact that it's biodegradable, stated the BBC in 2019.

A report by Vox found similar results. "[S]traightforward bans can lead to skyrocketing use of paper bags or thicker plastic that’s allowed because it’s considered reusable," wrote the author, Matthew Zeitlin. However, there was hope within the article: The ban increased public awareness of the harmful effects of plastics. That awareness, combined with new laws, was just enough to push people into using less plastic.

In California, Zeitlin found, officials said plastic bag litter noticeably decreased in cities after the ban. And it wasn't just because people switched to reusable bags — it was because some people opted to go without a bag at all. Instead, they carried their items by hand.

"Reusable bag use jumped from about 4 percent of bags, the city said, to 62 percent, while the portion of people who used no bag doubled," he wrote, "and the average number of bags used per customer fell from three to fewer than one."

However, there's a catch to these laws. Many researchers say the bans have to happen in conjunction with a fee on non-reusable alternatives. Taylor believes the best types of policies have fees "on both paper and plastic bags" while encouraging a switch to long-term use of reusable bags. Researchers told Vox that fees on all checkout bags were more effective, citing Chicago's $0.07 tax on all bags as a prime example.

In general, plastic bag bans aren't perfect, wrote policy analyst John Hite for the Conservation Law Foundation, but they're a good start. Hite pointed out that, even in studies showing that plastic bag bans increased purchases of thicker trash bags and paper bags, the bans consistently decreased the overall use of single-use plastic bags. Additionally, these studies also found that the bans were actually not strict enough — that they needed taxes and other fees to work more efficiently. Therefore, he considers the bans a small stepping stone; the beginning of reducing our reliance on plastic, not the end.

"Although bag bans won’t solve the plastic crisis on their own," he admitted, "they do help to change plastic consumption habits and cause consumers and retailers to be more open to alternatives."

At this time, banning single-use plastic bags seems to be more about the long-term than the now. As the citizens of New York find their footing with the new law, and adjustments are bound to be made in terms of fees, policymakers and environmentalists hope residents will learn how to develop long-term, sustainable habits that won't keep plastics in our lives.