HomeScienceInside the bag ban: paper, plastic or none of the above?

Inside the bag ban: paper, plastic or none of the above?




When consumers go to any grocery store or convenience store in California, they are forced to decide if they want to purchase a paper bag for 10 cents of bring their own reusable bag. But how did this issue begin?

Senate Bill 270 was passed on Sept. 30, 2014, banning plastic bags from most stores and creating a 10-cent bag tax for any consumers wanting a bag. This bill was passed by the senate and approved by the governor without a single Californian voting for it.

About two years later, Proposition 67 was put on the ballot to ban the sale of plastic bags and create the 10-cent tax in all of California. The choice for voters was to vote yes on Proposition 67 or to vote no and keep Senate Bill 270, but there was no option for voters to remove Senate Bill 270, which they had never voted for. On Nov. 8, 2016, California passed Proposition 67 and became the first state to ban the sale of plastic bags.

This new law became known as the “bag tax.” In order to have a bag for one’s groceries, one would have to pay 10 cents per bag. However, the 10 cents that each individual pays per bag does not go to any environmental initiative as one might assume, but instead to the company required to sell the bag. As stated in the law, “stores are allowed to keep the resulting revenue.”

This law created to discourage the use of paper bags by taxing the consumer with a 10-cent fee started with the classic plastic grocery bag. They were easy to make and cheap to produce; however, over the years these, plastic bags began to fill the streets and pollute the ocean.

One problem that plastic bags have are that they are not biodegradable, which means that they are unable to break down.

“Plastic can do much more harm in the ecosystem,” comments Joseph Mello, a chemistry and biology teacher at Carmel High School. “It never goes away. It does not ‘break down’ into naturally occurring matter as a paper bag will.”

“Plastic bags are also extremely light and easily carried and blown into the ocean where animals ingest them,” junior Elijah Smith says. “Although they are inexpensive, they are not environmentally friendly. “

Surprisingly, the solution that many people believe solves the plastic problem—paper—is questioned by some.

“In a dry landfill, paper bags don’t degrade any faster than plastic bags,” notes garbologist Bill Rathje, director of The Garbage Project, of the Archaeology Center of Stanford University.  “In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic.”

Also, paper bags weigh roughly 10 times more than plastic grocery bags, which take up a lot more space in the landfill, according to the Grocery Industry Committee on Solid Waste. Paper bags easily rip and cannot withstand the rain.

Paper bags were once the answer to problems with the plastic in the environment. They were argued to be biodegradable and easily recycled. But with the emergence of the reusable bag, paper was instantly ruled out.

Many people go to the grocery store with their reusable bags now.  But how many uses of a reusable bag justify the environmental impact?

According to a study done by Claire Thompson, a Stanford graduate, one would have to use a cotton bag 131 times to make an environmental impact when compared to plastic. Her thinking is that in order to make a reusable bag, it requires a lot more resources and energy than that of a thin plastic grocery bag.


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