Joseph Stromberg thinks the importance of reducing plastic-bag use has been overstated:
In 500 to 1000 years, the primary concern for pretty much every ecosystem on earth will be global warming. The facts on this are pretty clear. If we don’t significantly cut back on greenhouse gas emissions very soon, the world will get hotter, sea levels will rise, and the oceans will turn more acidic, among other problems. If we let truly drastic levels of warming occur — and at this point, there’s no sign we’re doing anything to stop it — scientists warn that profound disruptions to both modern human society and the natural world are very likely.
What does all this have to do with plastic bags? When it comes to greenhouse gases, they’re once again dramatically less important than the products we buy and put inside them.
Vauhini Vara has a more favorable take on the issue:
I live in San Francisco, where a local plastic-bag ban and paper-bag charge went into effect in 2012.
At the time, I was working for the Wall Street Journal. While working on an article about the city ordinance, I called a grocery store in my neighborhood, Canyon Market, to see how its owners felt about the law. Janet Tarlov, who owns the store with her husband, didn’t like the idea of giving shoppers fewer options, and worried that the inconvenience would persuade some of them to drive to nearby cities without bans or fees. “On balance, I think it’s a bad idea,” she told me at the time.
On Thursday, I called Tarlov again to see how things had played out. She laughed, a bit abashedly: “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. Even though paper bags tend to cost more than plastic bags, Tarlov thinks that the amount she has spent over all on bags since the ban has grown by less than her revenue has. Tarlov’s store pays about twenty-five cents for each paper bag it uses, and the ten-cent charge covers only part of that. But, in the past, the store had to cover the entire cost of the paper bags. (Bigger grocery chains can pay much less for paper bags, as little as a couple cents apiece; the California law requires that if stores end up with proceeds from the paper-bag fees, after covering the cost of the bags, they have to spend the money on activities related to the law, like educating customers about bringing their own reusable bags.) Plus, the ten-cent paper-bag charge has had more of an impact than Tarlov expected; more people are bringing their own reusable bags. “Our consumption of bags has gone way down,” she said. “That’s good for the environment, and people adjusted to it very quickly.”