Despite everyone’s best efforts single-use plastic bags continue to be a problem today. In 2014, California became the first state in the United States to ban the use of single-use plastic bags. At first glance this seems like it was a good idea. retailers began charging for the use of plastic bags at checkout.
California Legislation: http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx
Because of the ban, retailers began selling reusable plastic bags. these reusable bags use thicker plastic and are generally more durable. Since 2014 many other states in the United States and other countries have followed suit and banned the use of single-use plastic bags.
In 2018 Greenpeace and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) did the first comprehensive study on the effects of these bans against single-use plastic bags.
the results of this study did not paint a very good picture. in 2018 eight companies from the United Kingdom reported that used 960 million bags for Life. Bags for life being multiple use plastic bags.
In 2019 the same eight companies reported 1.24 billion bags used. this represents almost 11 bags for every person in the UK. Iceland increase sales by nearly ten times between 2017 and 2018.
The EIA report can be found here: https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/Checking-Out-on-Plastics-2-report-embargoed.pdf
What can we do about plastic bag waste?
I can speak from experience when I say banning single-use plastic bags and replacing them with reusable bags for $0.10 does not change consumer behavior. The EIA report seems to back me up on that.
If we really want to change consumer behaviors, we need to better incentivize consumers to stop using plastic bags. We have spent years training consumers that plastic bags are disposable. and they’re easily accessible when you are at the cash register.
I generally feel okay throwing away plastic bags. But I feel wasteful when I throw away a canvas bag. This is despite the fact that the plastic bag is probably harder on the environment than a canvas bag would be.
If we increase the price of plastic bags to be on par with canvas bags, consumers would naturally shift more to using reusable canvas bags instead of semi-disposable plastic bags.
Most shops I frequent now sell reusable canvas bags right at the cash register for around $1. that makes these bags just as easy to use as plastic bags when you forget to bring your bags. but, they cost ten times as much right now.
if we could work to reduce the cost of canvas bags through economies of scale, subsidies, and other efficies, along with increasing the cost of plastic bags and better educating consumers, we could make a big difference in the plastic waste problem.
It’s not just grocery bags
We shouldn’t stop at just trying to prevent the use of shopping bags. in the grocery store there are also plastic produce bags, plastic clamshells for fruits, and plastic bags for nuts and other items.
Grocery stores like Sprouts sell reusable canvas bags in the bulk nuts section. This allows you to avoid using single-use plastic bags when purchasing bulk nuts, beans Lentils, etc…
I have not seen reusable produce bags for sale in very many grocery stores. They too are a good way to reduce plastic waste. Switching to canvas bulk bags and reusable produce bags saves me from using 6 to 7 plastic bags every week. Over the course of a year that is over 300 plastic bags. Which to me, is a mind-boggling number.
We sell reusable produce bags here in our store: https://www.semicrunchy.com/product/reusable-produce-bags-organic-natural-cotton-mesh/. Please check them out if you are interested.
I try to avoid buying eggs in plastic packaging. I prefer the eggs in the compostable packaging. I don’t understand why eggs are even sold in plastic packaging. It is something I didn’t start seeing until the last few years.
fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc… almost universally come in plastic clamshells in grocery stores. We as consumers need to start demanding that the grocery stores sell them in biodegradable containers.
If we want this to happen, we as consumers must be okay with small price increases to offset the cost to the food producers and grocery stores.
Couldn’t we just recycle?
Recycling seems like a logical solution to the problem with plastic waste. In some cases, recycling is a good solution. however, single-use plastic bags along with many other common food packaging products are not accepted at most recycling centers.
Based on the EIA report of UK grocery stores, only 62% of plastic packaging was recyclable. But, even that number is a bit skewed. The study was based on weight.
Plastic bottles weigh 12 to 18 grams.
A plastic grocery bag weighs approximately 5.5 grams
Plastic bottles are generally more recyclable than other kinds of food packaging. If we were to recompute the amount of waste by item instead of by weight I would expect a much smaller percentage of recyclable material.
Some Communities have special drop off locations at grocery stores where you can recycle you are plastic bags. To find a recycling location near you, go here, and enter your ZIP code.
Can Bio Plastics help?
Bioplastics are plastics that are made from plant materials. Regular plastics are made from petroleum.
Bio-based Plastics do help in one side of the equation. Namely, bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable because they are made from plants.
The drawback is they divert resources from food production to plastic production.
This diversion means we have to increase agricultural production just two replace a small fraction (less than .5%) of the overall plastic usage. It also risks competition with other agricultural products. This competition potentially drives up food prices, and has the potential to cause food shortages in some populations.
Iceland recently reversed its position on compostable Plastics. It no longer supports their use following a trial that ended in 2019.
Iceland has a goal of being plastic free in its grocery stores by the end of 2023. Iceland will be a good country to follow when looking for ideas four ways to reduce plastic waste.
For those who are using compostable or biodegradable plastics, there are some important things you should know.
- They won’t compost/biodegrade In a landfill
- You can’t put them in the regular recycling bin and expect them to get recycled
- There’s a difference between compostable and biodegradable.
Biodegradable means that microorganisms will break down the Plastics over time. the end result may leave behind toxic residue.
Compostable means that it breaks down at the same rate is cellulose and leaves no toxic residue behind. if you want to be sure that you are properly disposing of your compostable plastics, be sure they are going into the compost bin. Not the trash or recycling bin.
As we have discussed, banning single-use plastic bags has not produced the results that we expected. If we want to actually reduce wasteful plastic use, we need to take another approach.
There are some countries that are really taking this initiative seriously such as Iceland. But one country cannot do this all on their own.
we all need to work to change our own behaviors, and help to influence others to adopt more environmentally sound policies. this could be a ban on certain kinds of food packaging, or simply raising prices on certain items such as plastic grocery bags.