Katie Rose Quandt contemplates California’s new plastic-bag ban:
There is evidence that bag bans and taxes can cut down on some of this waste: Ireland’s 2002 tax cut bag usage between 75 and 90 percent. An analysis of bag use in Australia found that 72 percent of customers accepted single-use bags that were offered for free. When a nominal fee was charged, usage dropped to 27 percent (33 percent switched to reusable bags and 40 percent made do without).
But there’s one major downside to bag bans: Although plastic bags’ manufacture is relatively energy intensive (according to the Australian government, a car could drive 36 feet with the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag), other kinds of bags use even more fossil fuel. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag must be used 12 times before its global warming impact is lower than continuing to use disposable bags, according to a study by the UK Environment Agency. A cotton bag takes 132 uses, and a paper bag—which will still be legal with California’s 10-cent fee—must be used four times before its global warming impact is less than using single-use bags.
And Brian Palmer reflects on grocery bags of yore:
The free handled paper bag dominated the market for only a brief period before the plastic bag came onto the scene in the late 1950s. Then the oil company Mobil brought the familiar petroleum-based plastic bag to market in the 1970s. These “T-shirt” bags (so named for their shape) cost less than half as much as a paper bag, and the economics proved irresistible. By the early 1980s, the plastic bag had become grocers’ packaging of choice.
From the very beginning, however, the plastic bag has been no stranger to controversy. Consumers hated the bag’s wobbliness at first and the fact that it wouldn’t stand up on its own. In 1959, reports of dozens of children suffocating on the bags led to calls for a ban, but manufacturers responded with a nationwide safety campaign. The plastic bag was saved.
But soon enough we became aware of another reason to ban the bag: it’s an environmental disaster.