Do plastic bag bans help the environment?

Yiping Yang By Yiping Yang

Los Angeles last week became the largest city in the U.S. to ban plastic bags.

The Los Angeles Times reported shoppers have mixed feelings about the plastic bag ban, which will not take effect until the city council passes a formal ordinance. While some applaud the new rule as good for the environment, others grumble that they’ll now have to pay 10 cents to buy paper bags, or more for reusable bags.

Can such a ban really help the environment? We may find the answer in China. Four years ago, the country banned supermarkets and retailers from giving shoppers plastic bags for free. If customers want a plastic bag, they must pay for it. China also prohibited the production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick.

Customers in Shanghai, China purchase noodles using plastic bags that were likely free. In China, such markets are banned from giving out free plastic bags. (Reuters)

At first blush, lots of plastic bags are still in use in China. In a story posted on, a Mr. Meng, who was carrying two large plastic bags filled with groceries, said “I can’t live without them.” He pays for the bags and then uses them as trash bags at home.

Some Chinese consumers buy them as a way to avoid receiving too much pocket change when cashiers break their larger bills at the checkout counter. Others adopt a different strategy: Taking the free bags provided by supermarkets for fruits and vegetables and using them as grocery bags for everything else.

Some vendors ignore the ban to keep shopping convenient for consumers. Mr. Zhang, a street vendor at a market in Jinan, said that if he didn’t give out free bags, his customers would shop elsewhere. “When other vendors provide free plastic bags and you do not, it will affect your business,” he said.

Every day in China, street vendors use about a billion plastic bags  and another two billion in stores, supermarkets, restaurants or small shops.

40 billion bags and counting

Still, the ban has mattered. In China, plastic bag use has dropped by two-thirds, or nearly 40 billion fewer plastic bags, in the last four years, Southern Weekly said, citing data from the China Chain Store and Franchise Association.

What would it mean if the U.S. saw a similar drop? Try about 253 billion fewer plastic bags a year. Right now, about 380 billion plastic bags are used annually in the U.S., according to the Reuseit websiteAlmost a quarter of these, about 100 billion plastic bags, were thrown away after one use, equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Of course, to get there, the entire U.S. would have to follow L.A.’s lead. Right now, U.S. cities and states have a spotty record when it comes to plastic bag bans. Among states, only North Carolina has banned plastic bags, and only in the state’s coastal areas. Plastic bag bans or fees proposed in 11 other states in the past two years, including California, have all failed. There are more than 40 cities in California, including San Francisco, that have outlawed plastic bagsand Washington, D.C. requires a nickel fee for each disposable grocery bag.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is falling behind other parts of the world. Besides China, places banning plastic bags include England, Mexico, India, Burma, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Australia.

Straight to the Source

  • Bianca.Williams

    In France there is no ‘ban’ on plastic bags, they simply don’t offer them in any stores! I believe US citizens would be much more comfortable with the fact that they either bring their own bags, or they carry their stuff home, rather than placing an actual government ban on the matter. Bans don’t alleviate the pressure, they simply create more.
    And, yes, based on my many experiences abroad, the States is one of the few places still offering plastic bags to be used in such excess; therefore, I believe if we could limit or curve our consumption of the product, we could have a less destructive impact on the environment.

    • Anna

      We were just having this discussion and I think the way that plastic bags are used here and our consumption of them is due in large part because of the way our “newer” country has been developed with people living farther from city centers and needing cars to visit the grocery store. Naturally, if you had to carry your goods home a plastic bag just isn’t suitable and a more substantial bag would be a necessary part of life.
      Now just imagine what all of this could do to our waistlines!