Landfill Impacts of Banning Plastic Carryout Bags

There are many who want to ban plastic carryout bags to help protect the environment, but have never thought through the consequences.  One California state legislator stated “the amount of plastics going into the waste stream is pretty large.”  What this legislator does not know is that the Plastic Carryout Bag Ban that he favored has unintended consequences that will make matters worse.

A ban typically involves banning plastic carryout bags and charging a fee for each paper bag issued.  The fee is intended to motivate the consumer to use reusable bags.  The basic idea is that a reusable bag,  because you use it over and over, has a smaller impact on the environment than a plastic bag.

The plastic bag is often demonized as a single-use bag.  The real single-use bag is the trash bag which when used for its primary purpose to carry trash is never reused for any other purpose.

The plastic carryout bag once used for its primary purpose to carry purchases home is then reused for a variety of other purposes making it a true multi-use bag.  Because the plastic carryout bag has handles it is a favorite for reuse.  About 40% are reused as waste can liners or as trash bags or to pick up pet litter.

According to state law, retail stores that issue plastic carryout bags at the checkout counter are required to have a recycling bin so that customers can return the bags for recycling.

The recycle bin at the store can also collect “other plastic” such as: produce bags, bread bags, dry cleaning-bags, and plastic wraps from toilet paper, paper towels, etc.  In 2009, 11.6 tons of “other plastic” was recycled for every ton of plastic carryout bags thereby keeping it out of the landfill.  It should be noted that plastic bags and wraps are not accepted in the curbside recycle bin because it is uneconomical to recycle and because it gets stuck in sorting machinery.

The cost to operate the store’s recycling program is much more than the money received for the recycled plastic and that cost is borne by customers through higher prices.

When plastic bags are banned stores are no longer required by law to retain the recycling bin.  In San Francisco, stores removed the recycling bin when plastic bags were banned.  As a result the “other plastic” ends up in the landfill rather than be recycled.

So what happens when a ban is implemented?  About 5% of plastic bags used pre-ban will remain and 30% are replaced by paper bags; and 65%, by reusable bags.

Of the paper bags issued, 40% are recycled and 60% end up in the landfill.  Paper bags weigh more than plastic bags.

The most common type of reusable bag is the non-woven polypropylene and the cotton bag which are not recyclable in Ventura County.  Hence, when worn out, disposal is in the landfill.  Reusable bags weigh more than plastic bags.

Since consumers will no longer have those free plastic carryout bags to reuse as trash bags; consumers are expected to replace these bags by purchasing small plastic trash bags.

When you consider the remaining plastic carryout bags, replacement bags, reusable bags, and paper bags, and the “other plastic”, the amount of material deposited in the landfill post ban is three and half times as much by weight as the plastic carryout bags deposited in the landfill pre-ban.  This is what is called a perverse unintended consequence of the plastic carryout bag ban.

Banning plastic bags in order to reduce the amount of plastic in the landfill is not a smart idea!