This week, Michigan became the fourth US state to place a ban on banning plastic bags. The new bill, signed into law Wednesday by Lt Gov Brian Calley, bans any bills “regulating the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers”, including plastic bags, bottles and so on. Idaho, Arizona and Missouri have also enacted similarly alliterative and troubling bans on bills banning plastic bags.
The Michigan Restaurant Association, representing 4500 food-service and hospitality businesses, were vocal supporters of the bill and argued plastic bag bans and taxes — which it called “frivolous” in a statement — set up bureaucratic hurdles that penalise small businesses and endanger the jobs of manufacturers who work in the plastic bag production industry.
It’s not entirely clear how true that is. In California, when bag bans and taxes were instituted, the proposition also allotted $US2 million ($2.7 million) to manufacturers to retain jobs and refocus onto reusable bags. Wouldn’t that have been possible in Michigan? What’s more, the precedent for taxes on plastic bags is for grocery stores to retain that revenue to cover any unforeseen costs associated with instituting the ban. In other words the money would go back to the very institutions opposing it, because the point isn’t to raise money, it’s to change our over-reliance on plastics.
Plastic, as you may recall, is an infamously harmful form of pollution because it takes centuries to biodegrade. The New Yorker reports that, in 2014, “plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup”. One study estimated that, in 2010, 275 million metric tonnes of plastic were generated in coastal cities and between 4.8 million and 12.7 metric tonnes of plastic were dumped into the ocean.
San Francisco was the first US city to impose a plastic bag ban, all the way back in 2007. Today, many cities and municipalities, like Seattle and Austin, have either bag bans or taxes of about 10 cents ($0.14) per single use bag. The Earth Policy Institute tracks all bag bans worldwide. Right now, there are about 130, with only one in Australia:
“The average plastic bag gets used for 12 minutes,” Julie Lawson, part of an anti-littering organisation in Maryland, told NBC News. “It makes a lot of sense to use a reusable one.”
From a consumer standpoint, using a plastic bag here and there may feel like a small drop in the literal ocean of garbage we’ve created. But all of those bags add up, and bag bans have been shown to have a meaningful impact.
When DC instituted its bag tax in 2010, it raised about $US150,000 ($207,773) for a river cleanup and reduced its monthly bag usage from 22 million a month to 3 million. A 2013 study published in the Equinox Center found that taxes and bans in San Jose and other cities in California also saw enormous reductions in the number of bags used in stores and retailers.
There’s no perfect alternative to plastic bags. As Wired notes, paper bags have a large carbon footprint, too, and cotton bags require immense amounts of water to manufacture. But bills banning bills that ban bags, melodic as they are, don’t exactly motivate a search for environmentally-friendlier solutions.