The Mythical Benefits of Plastic Bag Bans Debunked

Some municipalities have now imposed taxes or restrictions on plastic shopping bags, even though banning or taxing plastic bags has little effect on litter, and does not improve the environment. Plastic bags are less than one percent of all litter. Moreover, alternatives like cloth and paper bags are in many cases worse for the environment than plastic bags, and far worse for public health.  

That is confirmed by a recent legal settlement between plastic bag makers like Hilex Poly, and an importer of reusable bags, ChicoBag. The plastic bag makers sued California-based ChicoBag for its use of false claims about the recycling rate and environmental impacts of plastic grocery bags in its promotional materials, misinformation that was used as the basis for municipal bans and taxes on plastic bags. Under the recent settlement, ChicoBag is now required to discontinue its use of its counterfeit EPA website, and make corrections to its deceptive marketing claims, which had included sharing falsified government documents with schoolchildren.

It also is required to disclose to consumers on its website that reusable bags in fact need to be washed.  Reusable bags “are a breeding ground for bacteria and pose public health risks—food poisoning, skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections,” noted a 2009 report.  Harmful bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and fecal coliform thrive in reusable bags, unless they are washed after each use, according to an August 2011 peer-reviewed study, “Assessment of the Potential for Cross-contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags.”

Among the inaccurate claims that ChicoBag can no longer make is one that contrasted the environmental impact of plastic versus reusable bags. Contrary to ChicoBag’s previous claims, a study done for the U.K. Environmental Agency shows it would take 7.5 years of using the same cloth bag (393 uses, assuming one grocery trip per week) to make it a better option than a plastic bag reused three times. See “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags,” Executive Summary, 2nd page.

As an earlier report on the subject noted (see p. 60),

any decision to ban traditional polyethylene plastic grocery bags in favor of bags made from alternative materials (compostable plastic or recycled paper) will be counterproductive and result in a significant increase in environmental impacts across a number of categories from global warming effects to the use of precious potable water resources.  . . .other mitigating circumstances . . . may lead to even greater differentials between plastic grocery bags and those made from either paper or compostable plastics. . .the standard polyethylene grocery bag has significantly lower environmental impacts than a 30% recycled content paper bag and a compostable plastic bag.

As the U.K. Environmental Agency pointed out in July 2011, a “cotton bag has a greater [adverse environmental] impact than the conventional HDPE [plastic] bag in seven of the nine impact categories even when used 173 times . . . The impact was considerably larger in categories such as acidification and aquatic & terrestrial ecotoxicity due to the energy used to produce cotton yarn and the fertilisers used during the growth of the cotton” (see p. 60). Similarly, “Starch-polyester blend bags have a higher global warming potential and abiotic depletion than conventional polymer bags, due both to the increased weight of material in a bag and higher material production impacts” (see Executive Summary).

As Environmental Protection noted in 2010,

Reusable grocery bags can serve as a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health, according to a joint food safety research report issued by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University. The study — which randomly tested reusable grocery bags carried by shoppers in the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, and Tucson, Ariz. — also found consumers were almost completely unaware of the need to regularly wash their bags.

“Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half the bags sampled,” said Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a University of Arizona environmental microbiology professor and co-author of the study. “Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags after every use.”

The bacteria levels found in reusable bags were significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even lead to death — a particular danger for young children, who are especially vulnerable to food-borne illnesses, he said.

The study also found that awareness of potential risks was very low. A full 97 percent of those interviewed have never washed or bleached their reusable bags, said Gerba, who added that thorough washing kills nearly all bacteria that accumulate in reusable bags.

Plastic bags are “less than 0.5% of the litter stream,” notes the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. That low percentage is confirmed by EPA data. (See, e.g., EPA, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures, p. 53, showing that the entire category of plastic sacks, wraps, and bags — including trash bags as well as grocery bags — together account for only a little over one percent of all municipal solid waste, and only a small fraction of overall plastics.)