Plastic bag bans — a story of intention, limitation, and lost impact
Based on an estimate from the Earth Policy Institute the world uses 2 million plastic bags per minute. Bags are used an average of 12 minutes before being tossed into a bin where they might end up in the environment, or best case, in a landfill going through a 100 year degradation process. This sheer accumulation of bags is causing us to witness these bags flying on city streets, polluting the ocean, stuck on trees from the rain forests to the top of Mount Everest, making the Top 5 items found on beach cleanups — Earth is running out of plastic bag free natural space.
Recently, Jersey City, NJ enforced their plastic bag “ban.” The word “ban” is in quotes because rather than a plastic bag “ban” it can be described more as a plastic bag “upgrade.” The ordinance calls for businesses to stop giving out white plastic bags and instead provide thicker (2.25mms+) bags. Any fees are at the discretion of retailers, they could be handed out for free. In this case they are being handed out in big national chain stores and many drugstores (not for pharmacy purchases), while smaller businesses charge 10 cents for them.
The “alternative” bags are, at best, questionable in their durability compared to the predecessors. According to the ordinance bags should be re-usable at least 125 times and carry 22 pounds up to 75feet while being washed and disinfected in between uses. It is highly unlikely that even a small proportion of bags given for10 cents at a corner store is going to meet that criteria — how would anybody even measure if a bag is actually being used 125 times? To top it off Jersey City’s increasing food truck culture is exempt from the ordinance. They are listed as one of the exceptions along with dry cleaners, produce bags at grocery stores, delis etc. who can still provide the old plastic bags at no charge.
The day after the “ban” went into effect we saw a few of the alternative bags given at 10 cents flying around on the streets already — that is the photo at the beginning of this story. Discouraged I sat down to find a bright side.
How effective are bans?
Bag fees, even as low as 7 cents have a 60% reduction record across the globe. Though not sure that this is applicable in much of Jersey City — as most people don’t even realize that they are paying for the bags. Many national retailer locations in Jersey City are handing out the thicker bags for free. A growing number of the population is affluent enough not to consider the 10 cents, especially by the waterfront. One of the reasons why we still see many people walking out of stores with them.
Still — we’ll be curiously waiting to see reports on how much plastic bags have been reduced from local landfills, streets, and jamming local recycling facilities.
Meanwhile many cities around the US and the world have absolute bans on plastic bags. Bangladesh introduced the first one in 2002. Laguna Beach, California banned plastic bags completely while mandating a minimum of 10 cents fee for paper bags. Making it more convenient to bring your own to reduce litter.
One of the most promising and enlightening news on the topic though is that Africa is leading the world on plastic bag bans. But what about that argument that poor people wouldn’t be able to take home groceries if they didn’t have plastic bags? Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya — 32 African nations, all have bans in place. Solid, clear, absolute bans. No plastic bags. Anywhere. Simple. Clear. On point. Serving the intention behind the bans.
The difference in intention
While many Western municipalities can be argued to see bans as a political tool, African and East Asian countries see the dire need. The point of the plastic bag ban is very clear — reduce them from circulation — eliminate them from the environment so they no longer cause harm and pollution. From causing floods due to backed-up storm drains to malaria outbreaks from collecting mosquitos — the impact is clearly more visible.
These differences in objective creates a vast difference in how the legislators are approaching the ban — from inception to creation to enforcement. Africa has a clear mandate: eliminate them. While in the US we are looking at what does a plastic bag mean, how thick can it be, who will get upset? What can we do to make us look like we’re taking action while minimizing lost votes?
Let’s keep our eye on the ball. The objective, the purpose behind looking to cause behavior change around our throw-away society and disposable items is to keep litter out of the waterways. The aim is to make it more appealing for consumers to bring their own bags, or items, — as our parents and grandparents did just a short 30 years ago.
What about plastic bags vs. thicker bags?
Replacing one disposable item with another is never the answer. We create another problem by solving the current one. If the reason behind a ban is to eliminate bags from flying in the air, going into our water streams, clogging sorting machines, causing expensive storm drain blockages, etc. why would we call a product that has the exact same threat potential an “alternative”?
The point of the bans is to eliminate plastic from entering the environment. Replacing one item that is easy to be lost to the environment with another one just as easily — doesn’t solve anything. The claims about “recyclability” are only green washing efforts. If anything — the thicker plastic bags hurt existing plastic bag recycling programs setup in communities like Jersey City. Because these “recyclable” bags are, ehm, actually not recyclable in those programs. The only reason it says “recyclable” on them is because they are made of #2 plastics, rather than the usual #4. And while #2 plastics are more widely recycled, capturing, sorting and recycling them in bag form in our current facilities, is practically impossible.
We can all reuse one bag over 120 times. It doesn’t have to be a plastic bag given by the grocery store. Think about it — an average American uses about 3 to 5 bags per day — in 40 days a truly reusable bag would make a big difference. Personally, I’ve been using the same two reusable bags since 2015 — all around the world! Never mind nitpicking words — use your common sense.
Set the intention behind the ban
It’s the objective, awareness, and the leadership that counts at the end. It has been proven time and again that regardless of where you are — whether Africa, Asia, California, NYC, Maine — true, clear and absolute bans are possible without causing harm to the population. If anything a clearly defined open “ban” makes it less frustrating for residents. They understand the difference. Plastic bag bad. Reusable bag good. Plastic film clogs drains, flies in the air, pollutes our environment. Reusables make sense.
At this point in time — people are eager to have a positive impact on the environment, they expect bold actions by governments and leaders.
The problem is absolute — our planet is being buried under plastic. With all the bans and policy changes we’re still not making a dent in the amount of plastics entering the Ocean. Why? The “alternatives” provided by the legislations are still plastic. The bans are not true bans. For such an absolute problem only an absolute solution can promise the change our world and Ocean so desperately need.
Change is caused by the bold. Fear, hesitation, or minimal possible action never created big scale transformations. The good news is a small municipality can make a political story and move on a plastic bag ordinance. As long as we have the bold, willing, and visionary Africas and Californias of the world — we will see and continue to witness change. While behind misaligned objectives we’ll all be brushing up on vocabulary, word-choices, and exceptions, the ones with set environmental intentions will surpass our effectiveness by taking meaningful and measurable action.
Meanwhile, as we wait for legislation to get this right— remember that you can take your power in your own hands and bring your own bag to the grocery store. Perhaps the governments can’t completely ban plastics from being distributed in shops, yet, they definitely can’t force you to take one.
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