Lentis/Plastic Bags


Plastic bags are the most widely used container option in stores across the United States. Worldwide, approximately 1 trillion plastic bags are used annually. Compared with other options, plastic bags possess many superior qualities, including their cheap manufacturing costs and efficient use of space. Increasingly, controversy is arising over regulation of plastic bags in the United States, due to concern over their environmental impact. As a result, some local and regional governments, notably in California and Chicago, have begun to mandate extra charges for plastic bags or even ban them outright. This chapter examines the various motives behind groups that support and oppose plastic bags, as well as current policies on plastic bags and consumer reaction to them.


Brief HistoryEdit

In 1965, the Swedish company Celloplast, specializing in the production of cellulose film, obtained a U.S. patent for the idea that would later be known as the "T-shirt" plastic bag[1]. Designed as a plastic tube closed at the bottom, and open at the top with handles, this design is, in essence, the modern day plastic bag. In 1977 Mobil, a major American oil company, introduced the plastic shopping bag to the U.S., but the two dominant supermarkets, Safeway and Kroger, did not implement them in their stores until 1982[2]. Popularity of plastic bags exploded in the following decades. By 2012, 90% of all grocery stores used plastic bags and 80% of Americans preferred plastic over paper[3]. Today, the average family will use, on average, 15 plastic bags on a trip to the grocery store, and many consider them a staple in retailers worldwide[4].

Advantages of Plastic BagsEdit

Structural PropertiesEdit

The "T-shirt" model plastic bag commonly found in consumer market places was designed to optimize the customer's experience. Its name originates from the handles designed to make carrying easier. Compared to the most common alternative, paper bags, plastic bags offer superior durability, ease of carry, a smaller propensity to tear, and high performance in rainy conditions.[5]. The "T-shirt" model has a tremendous strength to weight ratio; weighing less than a quarter of an ounce, each can carry up to 17 lbs, more than 1,000 times their own weight[6]. The design also benefits retailers by enabling retail employees to open the bags more quickly, double them up more easily, and store them more conveniently in comparison with paper bags.

Economic BenefitsEdit

Polyethylene bags are very inexpensive to manufacture compared to bags made from other materials, allowing manufacturers to produce large quantities of plastic bags at a minimal cost[7]. In comparison with paper bags, plastic bags save producers money spent on both materials and pollution costs, as they require fewer resources and produce less emissions.[8]. Polyethylene bags offer additional savings with their lower recycling costs; they need less energy to collect and reprocess than paper bags require.[9]. Overall, 91% less energy is used to recycle a pound of plastic than in recycling a pound of paper.[10]. Plastic manufacturers report that it cost about a penny to produce a single bag, compared with 4-5 cents per paper bag[11].

Convenience and UsabilityEdit

Plastic bags offer both consumers and retailers convenience by weighing less and taking up less space. Defenders of plastic bags often cite their universality as an advantage over alternatives. Plastic bags have longer lifespans and can be more easily cleaned for reuse compared to paper bags[12]. They are also easily repurposable, being easily converted into trash can lining or bike seat covers in rainy weather.

Environmental Concerns and ImpactEdit

Compared to AlternativesEdit

Unlike paper bags, which come from trees, conventional plastic bags are made from polyethylene, a byproduct of natural gas and petroleum. They are not biodegradable and increase demand for petroleum extraction, creating strain on the environment. For instance, the 100 million bags consumed by the United States each year require 12 million barrels of oil, greater than the entire oil demand for the entire country of Iceland.[13] Surprisingly, plastic bag production has a smaller environmental impact than paper bags. Paper bag manufacturing processes use 40 percent more energy, resulting 50 percent more water pollution and 70 percent more air pollution. The amount of water used to produce one paper bag can produce more than 16 plastic bags. In addition, plastic bags are more recyclable and consume less landfill space.

Reusable cloth bags, part of a popular new trend, often harm the environment more than plastic bags. Cloth bags are made from cotton, a highly labor and water-intensive crop which requires large amounts of farmland to produce. Demand for reusable bags increases deforestation in cotton growing regions. Cloth bags prove difficult to recycle as they contain combinations of different materials including metal and other fabrics.[14]

Due to many trade-offs between bag options, banning plastic bags does not necessarily decrease the amounts green house gas emissions, solid waste, and energy consumption annually. In fact a study conducted in San Diego, California, found that the amount of freshwater consumption would increase with a ban due to the increased production of paper bags. [15]

Harmful EffectsEdit

Despite the ease of recycling plastic bags, the United States recycles only 1 percent of the plastic bags it uses in a year. The remainder becomes trash, either in a landfill or as litter.Ultimately, 4 billion plastic bags become litter each year - enough to circle the earth 63 times. [16] Once in the environment, plastic bags can take from 400 to 1000 years to breakdown naturally. Degraded bags produce toxic compounds that seep into rivers, lakes, and soils. They can be mistaken for food by wildlife, causing suffocation in animals that attempt to eat them. Plastic accounts for 90 percent of all ocean litter, and plastic bags are a very visible form, comprising a large part of the infamous Pacific trash vortex. However, plastic bags constitute only 1 to 2 percent of all litter in the United States.


The primary available alternatives to plastic bags include paper, biodegradable plastic, and reusable bags. When compared with plastic bags, none offers a clear overall benefit. Paper bags are biodegradable and break down in water, which is good in nature and bad for the user; they also carry a larger carbon footprint[17]. Biodegradable bags are a developing technology and are corn-based, allowing them to be biodegradable and break down over time. Some drawbacks include the methane released in their manufacturing process and the environmental risks they pose to wildlife before they degrade. Reusable bags are often touted as the strongest alternatives, especially in locations where plastic bags have been banned; however, they often must be used over 150 times to be more environmentally friendly than a plastic bag, and harm the environment, as cotton is both a labor and water-intensive crop.[18] Governments have experimented with taxes, surcharges, and fines, which have proven relatively effective but limit consumer choice. Bans have been very successful in eliminating plastic bag use, but at the expense of anger at government overreach.

Case StudiesEdit

Cities Who BanEdit

A study conducted by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) examined the effects of plastic bag bans with consideration focused on budgets for litter collection and waste disposal for 6 cities: San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles, California Brownsville and Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C. No city showed any indications of reduction in costs because of plastic bag bans.[19].

Recent StudiesEdit

In 2012, Buenos Aires' Environmental Protection Agency enacted bag restrictions that caused many large supermarkets to charge extra fees for plastic bags. Researchers took the opportunity to observe the behavior of consumers affected by the extra fee, as well as consumers who were not affected by the new fees. They found that a significant amount of middle to low income consumers started bringing in their own bags after extra fees were put in place.

The researchers then interviewed consumers to discover the reason behind their behavioral change. Although many consumers brought their own bags because of economic reasons, a significant number of them also cited environmental reasons. The study concluded that the charge activated "pre-existent pro-environmental attitudes" in consumers when they were forced to rethink why they were using plastic bags. [20]

In 2013, surveys revealed that 60 percent of Americans opposed a plastic bag ban. When framed in terms of personal choice, 82 percent thought that the type of bags used should be determined by consumers and stores. Most Americans believe that government should not decide which bags stores can use.

Plastic Bags in the Political SphereEdit

Many political organizations have taken a stance on plastic bags. For example, the United Nations has declared that there is "zero justification for manufacturing them."[21]

California offers a look into plastic bags' interaction with American politics. In 2014, the California State Legislature passed a law banning the distribution of single-use plastic bags to consumers. In response, the American Plastic Bag Alliance,[22] an industry group, drove an effort to gather 800,000 signatures statewide to postpone the enactment of the law and add a referendum about plastic bags to the ballot in 2016. The group notes that grocers and paper bag manufacturers stand to make a windfall from the legistlation. Plastic bag opponents mobilized after the law was blocked, forming California vs Big Plastic, [22] which aims to protect California's ban and expose what it believes to be nefarious interests behind the American Plastic Bag Alliance.

Conclusions and GeneralizationsEdit

At this time, no clear cut champion alternative to plastic bags exists. Although they seem wasteful and inefficient, plastic bags oftentimes end up being significantly more environmentally friendly than "greener" alternatives such as paper and reusable bags. As governments consider enacting regulation across many issues, especially with regard to the environment, they should take care to make sure the full costs of each option are fully weighed and vigorously considered, for making decisions based on emotion, perception, or superficial facts can lead to causing more harm. Finally, voters and politicians should be aware of outside influences supporting causes; often, they hold some sort of financial interest, more often than not a financial one. With regards to the environment, a law that is intended to increase sustainability may actually harm the environment while lining the pockets of special interest groups.

Further ResearchEdit

A suggested topic for further research would be to investigate the efficacy of plastic bag bans in Europe compared with the United States, and analyze how sociological differences can account for those differences.


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  14. [Villarreal, P. Feigenbaum, B. (2012). A Survey on the Economic Effects of Los Angeles Count's Plastic Bag Ban. National Center for Policy Analysis. http://www.ncpa.org]
  15. [Equinox Center. (2013). Plastic Bag Bans: Analysis of Economic and Environmental Impacts. Equinox Center. http://www.equinoxcenter.org]
  16. [The Washington Post (2015). Paper or Plastic? The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2007/10/03/GR2007100301385.html]
  17. All About Bags (2015). Paper vs. Plastic Bags. http://www.allaboutbags.ca/papervplastic.html
  18. Profita [Profita, Cassandra} (2011). Reusable Bags: Only Superior to Plastic if You Reuse Them - A Lot. http://www.opb.org/news/blog/ecotrope/reusable-bags-only-superior-to-plastic-if-you-reuse-them-a-lot/
  19. Burnett, S. (2013, December 1). Do Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags Save Cities Money? National Center for Policy Analysis. http://www.ncpa.org/pdfs/st353.pdf
  20. [Mooney, C. (2014). The surprising reason why those 5 cent charges for plastic bags actually work. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com]
  21. [Chung Grace (2009). UN Environment Chief Urges Global Ban on Plastic Bags. McClatchy DC. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/economy/article24541336.html]
  22. a b [APBA (2015). About the APBA. American Plastic Bag Alliance. http://plasticsindustry.org/APBA/About/index.cfm?navItemNumber=8752]