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Banning The Plastic Bag

Banning The Plastic Bag

Last week Hawaii became the first in the U.S. to ban plastic shopping bags statewide. The island of Oahu, home to two-thirds of Hawaii's population, joined its neighbors in outlawing non-compostable and non-recyclable bags, effectively making it a total state ban.

Back on the mainland, local bag bans have been spreading like wild fire over the past five years—up and down the West Coast, all around the Northeast, and even in oil-rich Texas. 

But why such a strong arm approach to seemingly small problem? Are shopping bags really so important that they require government intervention? Plus, aren't they recyclable anyway? To understand the wave of plastic bag bans, it's best to frame it in terms of cost-benefit.

In the U.S., we go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year. Around the globe it's as many as 1 trillion—and they're not getting recycled. More than 99% of all plastic shopping bags end up in a landfill or floating in the ocean somewhere.

For something with an average useful life of twelve minutes, it will take it another 500 years to decompose in the earth or break up in the ocean. It could be longer—that's just the best guess we have. The plastic shopping bag was only invented in 1962 after all.

Centuries of pollution for just twelve minutes of convenience.

That's a ratio that's so out of whack, a product design that's so destructive, that only a ban makes sense. It shouldn't be an option to risk damaging the environment every time you pop down to to the convenience store, and it's wrong for us to pretend it should be.

All of those plastic bag bans are working, too. A report conducted by the City of Austin to measure the effects of a local ban after the first year found that plastic bag use had dropped 75%—200 million single-use bags saved from the landfill in a single year.

That leaves only 999.8 billion left to go.


To find more details on local bag bans in the U.S., check out this Google Map compiled by the Earth Policy Institute.

Photos used with permission from Nick Pumphrey, "A Not So Magical Dive With Manta Rays Through an Ocean of Plastic in Bali". Check out more of Nick's photography at @nickpumphreyphoto.

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