Plastic ban, yay or nay?

Single-use plastic bans are sweeping across the country.

This month, Maine became the first state in the US to ban food containers made of styrofoam (the policy won’t take effect until 2021). Maryland’s legislature passed a similar bill, though it’s unclear if the governor will sign it into law. California and New York have already banned single-use plastic bags, and Hawaii is considering a move to ban all single-use plastics (bottles, straws, utensils and foam containers) by 2022 in restaurants and government buildings. Many more states and locales have at least banned free plastic bags at retailers, encouraging consumers to BYOB and requiring them to pay for bags in a pinch. Boston, where I live, is one of these cities.

Lots of people are celebrating these new ordinances. The day Maine passed the foam ban, my Instagram and Reddit pages were full of congratulatory messages, and even some slightly annoyed comments like “Why do we have to wait until 2021???”

Image credit: romana klee via Flickr.

It is hard NOT to view these policies as huge environmental wins. According to the EPA, Americans use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps every year, the overwhelming majority of which is destined to landfills. (Yes – some soft plastic is recyclable, read more about it on my post here). An Ellen MacArthur Foundation report estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight), if the current use trends continue.

By that logic, banning single-use plastics seems like a no-brainer. Yet, I crave a more nuanced discussion around “what will replace these materials” in our policy debate. For example, a styrofoam container ban doesn’t mean everyone will stop order takeouts, and we can’t expect everyone to start bringing them own food containers everywhere they go (in fact, existing states and local food safety regulations probably prohibit food establishments from using containers brought in by consumers themselves) – which means – foam containers will likely be replaced with plastic or cardboard.

(Yes an another alternative is biodegradable food packaging, but it is currently very expensive to be used at mass-scale, and we also don’t have the systematic composting capabilities to let them properly biodegrade.)

Rigid plastic and cardboard are indeed recyclable materials, but these containers will be soiled with food, making them difficult to recycle. Cardboard food containers are typically lined with a thin film of plastic to prevent leaking, thus requiring specialized equipment to properly seperate these materials. And even though cardboard does break down much faster than plastic in nature (because they are made of paper), the way we compress trash in landfills means that it won’t have the oxygen and light needed to biodegrade.

Similarly, plastic bag bans could have unintended consequences. Have you read this NPR article explaining why? If not, you should check it out asap. The short version is this:

  1. Plastic bag bans do not decrease the amount of plastic bag use to the extent one might expect, because free grocery plastic bags typically have secondary uses, i.e., I use them to scoop up cat litter. When free bags are banned, the sale of trash bags soars, making the net effect of the ban smaller. In fact, trash bags are typically thicker, so some 30% of the plastic eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker trash bags. 
  2. When plastic bags are banned, grocery stores usually switch to paper bags. However, on a per-use basis, paper bags carry a larger environmental footprint because they are much more resource intensive to produce. So while waste decreases, greenhouse gas emission increases.
  3. The ideal outcome from a retailer plastic bag ban is that people starting carry their own totes or other long-lasting bags, and use them over and over again. Which takes time, effort, and a lot of public education.
Image credit: NPR.

Ok, I’m really starting to sound like a downer. I’m not saying these bans don’t have benefits! A colleague recently mentioned that the grocery bag ban made her much more conscious of her plastic use because “plastic bags are so precious these days!” To me, the signaling effect is the biggest benefit of these policies – raising awareness of our single-use plastic and trash problem – which is no small feat. But in terms of truly reducing environmental impacts, these policies are blunt instruments and certainly not the be-all and end-all solution some might have hoped.