No More Plastic Shopping Bags: The environment is saved! (Except it isn’t)

As of March first, 2020, “single-use” shopping bags have been banned in New York State, a bold but profoundly stupid measure intended (as usual) to “protect the environment.” As far as I can tell, this is a deeply misguided and politically motivated initiative that is bound to produce far more harm to the environment than it presents.

To me, it looks like this whole mess is predicated on the bone-headed beliefs that a) only plastic shopping bags have environmental impact, and b) plastic shopping bags are discarded immediately upon completion of their first use. Both of those beliefs are false, and in fact badly so. To put it simply, research demonstrates that conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) have the smallest per-use environmental impact of all available options for lugging your shopping home.

  • Reusable cloth and plastic shopping bags have hundreds of times the carbon footprint of disposable plastic ones, but only last a few hundred uses, so they produce a generally greater negative impact on global warming in the long run.
  • Cloth bags are fraught with additional problems, like the fact that they are easily contaminated and have been shown to be a breeding ground for bacteria, so they require frequent laundering, producing even more carbon footprint and pollution. “Organically sourced” bags share these problems, plus have significantly higher environmental impact in production due to added inefficiencies in the production phase.
  • Paper shopping bags have a significantly higher per-unit carbon footprint than the plastic ones, rely on fast-growth tree farms which destroy fertile land through monoculture farming (and have decreased CO2 uptake and air quality improvement abilities compared to natural growth forests), and dump acids, chlorine, dioxins, and various organic contaminants into the environment.
  • As many as 77% of “single-use” plastic shopping bags get reused as garbage bags, so now we have to buy plastic garbage bags to replace them (most municipalities require garbage to be placed in plastic), and these truly single-use 4-gallon garbage bags contain (depending on brand) 2-3 times the exact-same material (HDPE) as the shopping bags we have to replace them with. Assuming we were completely naive as to the environmental impacts of the alternatives which must now be employed to transport groceries, in the best result, even if only 33% of plastic shopping bags were being reused in the first place, this measure results in a net wash for pollution and other impacts on the environment.

In other words, literally everything about this ban will result in worse outcomes for the environment, and its sole benefit was to make people feel good about having “done” something. It’s a political morality play intended to win votes while actually doing the opposite of what it claims.