By Nate Lipka on Sep 18, 2013

Plastic Bags: To Ban or Not to Ban? The Messy Debate Rages On

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Do plastic bag bans reduce littering? Photo: Flickr/katerha

Do plastic bag bans reduce littering? That’s one of the questions up for debate. Photo: Flickr/katerha

This month, San Diego took a step toward banning the use of plastic bags in grocery stores and other retail outlets. Nearly 80 cities in California have already instituted similar bans, and cities and counties nationwide, from Dallas to Madison, Wis., are steeped in debate over the merits of the sweeping measures.

Supporters say plastic bags are an unnecessary environmental menace and that banning them is the best way to curb plastic bag litter, especially in waterways.

Opponents say such measures are an infringement upon personal choice, are expensive for retailers and actually do little to reduce litter.

Which side is right? The answer, like most other hotly contested issues in the U.S., is buried somewhere in the mess and the money.

Mess

Approximately 100 billion plastic shopping bags are used per year in the U.S., though only 1 to 2 percent end up getting recycled. Some reports have plastic bags as the second most common form of litter, behind cigarette butts.

Proponents of plastic bag bans often point to the prevalence of plastic bag debris in oceans, including the famed Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Opponents of bans dispute such figures and are quick to reference one potential problem with reliance upon reusable bags: contamination.

Researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California found that 97 percent of reusable bag users surveyed heading into Arizona and California grocery stores have never washed their bags.

Eighty-three of 84 bags examined in the same study tested positive for significant amounts of bacteria. Half had coliform bacteria from raw meat or uncooked food contamination, and 12 percent contained E. coli.

The study did indicate that machine- or hand-washing reusable bags all but eliminated any traces of bacteria and recommended that proper care instructions be printed inside all bags or reinforced through public service announcements.

Money

Litter isn’t just ugly — it costs cities lots of money to clean up.

San Diego’s Environmental Service Department says it spent $160,000 in the most recent fiscal year cleaning up plastic bag litter.

Outside of outright bans, some cities and counties have taken a fiscal approach to curbing plastic bag use and waste.

City Council members in New York City have proposed the idea of a 10-cent charge for each plastic bag. A similar bill proposed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was shot down by state lawmakers in 2009.

Another financial consideration is that some retailers claim that plastic bag bans — and the increase in the use of reusable bags — have led to an uptick in shoplifting. Twenty-one percent of business owners surveyed in a Seattle Public Utilities survey say they’ve seen an increase in shoplifting since the city banned plastic bags in July 2012. One area grocery owner claims to have lost at least $8,000 in merchandise since the ban was instituted.

According to consumers, stores should have a say in the matter. Sixty-five percent of Americans oppose plastic bag bans, according to the results of a Reason-Rupe poll released in August.

The majority of those surveyed indicated that individual stores should determine what type of bags should be made available and whether a cost should be associated.

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