Should Plastic Bags Be Banned?

They’re bad for the Earth, but are the alternatives any better?

Paper or plastic? It might seem like an insignificant choice to make when you’re checking out in a grocery store, but its effects can be massive. The bags discarded every year accumulate and they cause serious problems like ocean and soil pollution. In 2017, my hometown, Park City, became the first city in Utah to ban plastic grocery bags in an effort to cut down on littering. Plastic bag pollution is a problem all over the U.S.—in the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons (more than 22,000 pounds) of plastic are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. On land and at sea, these plastics gather and become hazards for wildlife and have polluted waters as far away as the Arctic Ocean.

As if that’s not bad enough, plastic bags often end up in landfills, where they eventually break down into tiny bits that can easily blow into oceans and collect in storm drains that feed into bodies of water. This process can release toxins that contaminate soil and water, stunt plant growth, and make water undrinkable. Recycling could help reduce this problem, but often, recycling regulations make it difficult and expensive to sort and process different types of plastics. According to the PEW Research Center, only 13.5 percent of plastic bags were recycled in 2013.

The situation is perilous right now, but we can take some steps to promote positive change. One of the best tactics we have is to opt for reusable bags instead—something more shoppers will be pushed to do once there are more plastic bag bans in place. “It’s up to kids to be aware, speak up for less plastic in their communities, and educate their friends and families,” says Sharelle Rodman, co-founder of the Park City Plastic Coalition, which helped enact the plastic bag ban in Park City. If we can learn to prevent the problems that come with plastic, we’ll be taking a bold and important step to creating a better, safer planet.

Plastic bags may be harmful to the environment, but the effects of banning them are even worse. We should really be asking ourselves if there are actually some advantages to keeping plastic bags around—and if those benefits even outweigh the harm.

Think about it: If we ban plastic bags, many people will switch to using paper ones. But to manufacture those, we have to cut down millions of trees. Research has shown that paper bags actually have a higher carbon footprint than plastic ones because it takes more energy to produce and transport them.

Obviously, some people will choose reusable cotton bags instead of paper. But unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a better option. It takes thousands of gallons of water and a lot of pesticides to produce 1 pound of cotton—and although those bags will last longer, they’ll eventually end up in a landfill too. In fact, after the city of Austin, Texas, instituted a plastic bag ban in 2013, the government found that people were throwing out heavy-duty reusable bags at an unprecedented rate. Because these bags are thicker than a plastic bag, they take up more space in landfills.

Like it or not, plastic bags may still be better than the alternatives. According to David Tyler, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, plastic bags cause less stress on the environment because they use less water, require fewer chemicals, produce fewer greenhouse gases, and have half the carbon footprint of cotton and paper bags. Plus, they have many reuses; after all, how would you clean up your dog’s poop without plastic bags?

While it’s a nice idea, attempting to ban all plastic bags is simply unrealistic. There has to be a more efficient way to reduce waste—and it’s up to our generation to figure out what that is.

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More than 40 countries—along with plenty of cities worldwide—have found ways to limit or prohibit the use of plastic bags. Check out some of the innovative solutions!

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