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2012 Law & Public Policy

Battle of the bag: Will Massachusetts be the first to adopt a statewide ban on plastic bags?

By Jennifer Bonar.   Read as PDF.  Plastic bags are the most common consumer item on the planet.  With more than 1 trillion used each year, they are also a leading source of pollution worldwide.  In response to this problem, governments have taken three kinds of approaches: bans, taxes, and voluntary initiatives.  Massachusetts is currently debating a ban on plastic bags at certain retail stores.  This is the best approach and should be immediately adopted by the legislature.

From production to disposal, plastic bags raise major concerns for the environment and human health.  The production of these bags requires large quantities of oil and natural gas and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.  The lightweight nature of the bags makes disposal particularly difficult: wind currents can easily lift bags from garbage trucks, the tops of landfills, and trash bins.  As a result, urban spaces, landscapes, and waterways have become littered with plastic bags.  Wind and water currents also carry bags to the ocean, where ultraviolet rays break them down into small pieces.  Fish mistake the bits of degraded plastic for plankton and ingest large quantities of them, causing serious internal injuries and moving plastic up the food chain.  Ultimately, the life expectancy of a single plastic bag is estimated at more than 1,000years.

Voluntary initiatives, such as promoting increased recycling, have proven ineffective.  While recycling is a worthy goal, success is dependent on the participation of both consumers and retailers, which is no guarantee.  Recycling programs are also unlikely to affect behavior in the actual checkout line, where consumers find the convenience of the bags almost irresistible.

Some governments have instituted a tax on plastic bags at the point of sale.  Revenues generated from such programs fund environmental cleanup and enforcement.  Currently, more than two dozen nations and local governments have imposed a tax on plastic bags, a number of which have proven highly effective.  In Ireland, for example, plastic bag use dropped by a staggering 94 percent following the introduction of a 15 euro cents per bag taxin 2002. Washington, D.C. has had similar success with a five cent tax on plastic bags in effect since 2010.

Taxes may be effective in changing personal habits, but they are extremely unpopular in the United States.  Besides Washington, D.C., only Montgomery County, Maryland, has passed a bag tax to date.  The plastics industry has played a large role in defeating proposed bag taxes through well-funded lobbying and advertising campaigns.

The fact is that there is no way to use bags responsibly.  Bags will become litter.  They are just too light to stay put.  An outright ban is therefore the only way to reduce the amount of pollutants in the environment.  Bans have the advantage of simplicity.  Unlike a tax, a ban does not ask much of anyone – except the plastics industry.  Bans also require very little government involvement.

At least 20 nations and 46 local governments have implemented bans of some form on the distribution of plastic bags.  San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007.  As a result, 127 million fewer bags were handed out in the first year, and landfill waste was reduced by 10 percent.  Today, legislation banning plastic bags has been proposed in hundreds of othercities, counties, and states across the country.

In Massachusetts, residents of Plymouth, Sturbridge, and Worcester have all considered banning plastic bags in recent years.  Notably, Nantucket has had a ban in place since 1990.  In 2011, Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead introduced the Plastic Bag Reduction Act.  The bill would prohibit retail stores of at least 4,000 square feet in size from distributing plastic checkout bags that cannot be composted.  It would not limit other types of bags, such as those used in the produce aisle or meat section.  The bill has 36 sponsors and has received wide support from local environmental groups and citizens.

Opposition has come mainly from local retailers associations, who favor recycling as the best solution.  Though representatives of the national plastics industry have yet to get involved, legislators and advocates should be prepared for a fight.  The powerful plastics industry played a critical role in California’s failure to pass a statewide ban in 2010.

Supporters are hoping that the more measured stance in the Massachusetts bill—allowing for the distribution of compostable plastic bags and excluding small independent businesses from regulation—will help avert the plastics-industry pressure that killed the California bill.

Also, because California is home to some of the largest plastics manufacturers in the U.S., it was easier for opponents there to label the bill as a “job killer.”  By contrast, Massachusetts has only a small number of plastics manufacturers and is home to one of the few biodegradable plastics companies in the country, Metabolix.

Plastic bags are designed for a brief use but remain with us seemingly forever.  There is no need for the environmental damage they cause.  Simple alternatives such as reusable bags are available and already used by many consumers worldwide.  Governments at all levels are beginning to recognize this and take action.

Representative Ehrlich is convinced that Massachusetts could become the first state to enact a ban and that her bill is “the right vehicle to accomplish that goal.”  The time has come for Massachusetts to lead the nation once again.

Jennifer Bonar graduated from Suffolk University Law School in May 2012.  She received her B.A. in International Affairs and Geography from The George Washington University in 2009.  Jennifer hopes to pursue a career in environmental policy and advocacy.

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