First Statewide Ban of Plastic Bags

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a first of its kind move in the United States, the residents of Hawaii have collectively said “No!” to plastic bags; a ban is slated to take effect July 1, 2015
  • Los Angeles recently became the largest city in the United States to ban plastic bags at supermarket checkout lanes
  • Several other cities in California have already banned plastic bags, as have Seattle, Washington and Aspen, Colorado
  • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they break down into smaller and smaller bits, contaminating waterways and putting marine life, who mistake the plastic for food, at risk
  • Only about 1-5 percent of plastic bags are recycled; there’s also little economic incentive to do so
  • You don’t need to wait for a legislative ban to come to your area – you can enact your own “ban” starting today

By Dr. Mercola

In a first-of-its-kind move in the United States, the residents of Hawaii have collectively said "No!" to plastic bags.

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle penned the crowning achievement when he signed a bill banning the bags beginning July 1, 2015.

While Honolulu's new law does have some exceptions, like plastic bags for newspaper delivery, frozen foods and flowers, within three years Hawaii will be the first state in the union to have banned the vast majority of the bags everywhere in the state.

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to the Plastic Bag?

In Hawaii, the ban was accomplished by each of the state's counties banning them on an individual basis, rather than by a state law. Carlisle's signature in the last county to ban the bags completed the act of essentially making it a statewide rule without ever having to go before the state legislature.

Some of the bans are already in place or scheduled to begin next year, with fines of up to $1,000 for each day of violation. The plastic bag issue is particularly important for Hawaii as it is in the middle of the ocean and it is very easy for bags to blow into the ocean.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles became the largest city in the United States to ban plastic bags at supermarket checkout lanes. The city gave stores 16 months to phase them out, at which time shoppers will have to bring their own reusable bags or pay 10 cents for each paper bag.

The trend seems to be picking up speed. San Jose, San Francisco, Pasadena, Monterey, Long Beach, and other cities in California have already banned them. Seattle, Washington's bag ban, which was passed in December 2011, took effect in July 2012, and other areas, such as Aspen, Colorado, have adopted similar bans.

Around the world, countries including China and Ireland are taking a stand against the use of these highly polluting bags, adopting measures ranging from bans to fees on plastic bags in order to reduce their use. Bag taxes can also be incredibly effective. Washington DC put into effect a 5-cent tax on plastic bags two years ago, and the number of plastic bags given by businesses to customers dropped from 22.5 million per month in 2009 to a mere 3 million per month, almost as soon as the tax went into effect.

In Illinois, however, a bill is on the table (SB 34421) that requires plastic bag recycling programs, but would make it illegal for any city in the state to ban the use of plastic bags -- and it's currently waiting a decision from the governor.

Shocking Statistics About Plastic Bag Waste

For a succinct and entertaining introduction to the waste that is the plastic bag, I highly recommend the film "Bag It."2 It is a truly eye-opening look to the vastness of the problem, and the immense waste that could be spared if more Americans toted a reusable bag with them to the grocery store. As their web site reports:3

"In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is used annually to make the plastic bags that Americans consume. The United States International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags were used in the U.S. in 2009. These bags, even when properly disposed of, are easily windblown and often wind up in waterways or on the landscape, becoming eyesores and degrading soil and water quality as they break down into toxic bits.

Their manufacture, transportation and disposal require large quantities of non-renewable resources and release equally large amounts of global-warming gases."

On a worldwide scale, each year about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. At over 1 million bags per minute, that's a lot of plastic bags, of which billions end up as litter each year, contaminating oceans and other waterways.

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Plastic Bag Bits are Now Taking Over Our Oceans

Plastic bags, like the petroleum they are made from, don't biodegrade very well at all, rather, they photodegrade. Meaning, they break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, which contaminate soil and waterways, and enters the food chain -- animals accidentally eat these bits and pieces, mistaking them for food. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):4

"Studies have shown that fish and other marine life do eat plastic. Plastics could cause irritation or damage to the digestive system. If plastics are kept in the gut instead of passing through, the fish could feel full (of plastic not food) and this could lead to malnutrition or starvation.

… Plastic debris accumulates persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater (Mato et al. 2001). Oceanic fragments have also tested positive for other POPs, such as DDT, PAHs, and aliphatic hydrocarbons. Many of these pollutants, such as PCBs and DDTs, are known endocrine disruptors and developmental toxicants."

The problem is so severe that multiple plastic "stews" have formed in the oceans. Scientists have dubbed one of the masses of plastic bags, jugs, bottles, nets, and other plastic junk the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," and its volume is growing at an alarming pace.  In some areas, it's said that there are 40 times more plastic in the water than plankton!5

Of course, plastic bags aren't only a problem in the oceans; they're a problem on land, too. It's estimated that plastic bag use in the United States create 300,000 tons of landfill waste each year, and those chemical-laden materials will not stay contained forever.

According to the Clean Air Council:6

"The barriers of all landfills will eventually break down and leak leachate into ground and surface water. Plastics are not inert, and many landfill liners and plastic pipes allow chemicals and gases to pass through while still intact."

Is Recycling the Answer?

Recycling is clearly better than tossing a plastic bag in the trash, but the truth is that only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled7 and some estimates place that at closer to 1 percent. This isn't only a matter of consumers not playing their part: the truth is that plastic bag recycling isn't profitable like say, aluminum cans. It reportedly costs $4,000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which have a market value of only $32!8 And, adding insult to industry, many plastic bags that are recycled are shipped to China to do so, another major waste of energy. reported:9

"Many plastic bags collected for recycling are wastefully shipped to overseas processing facilities. According to a 2007 American Chemistry Council report, 10 the U.S. exports 57% of its postconsumer recovered film to China (25% of which consists of plastic bags, contained under the blanket term "mixed film") where there once were "thousands" of plastic processing centers.

However, when the economic downturn happened in late 2008, many of these Chinese plastic processors went out of business. Bottom line: there is a glut of this material that is not getting recycled, leaving material recovery facilities with bales of collected recyclable plastic with no one to sell it to."

Ready to Ditch Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags may seem like an insignificant issue, but they add up significantly over time. This is one area where virtually everyone can have a dramatic impact for change, especially if you encourage your friends, family and neighbors to follow your lead. You don't need to wait for a legislative ban to come to your area – you can enact your own "ban" starting today. Top tips for ditching plastic bags, and other forms of plastic waste, include:

  • Carry reusable shopping bags – keep them in the trunk of your car, or stash a couple of the small fold-up varieties in your purse so you're always prepared
  • Avoid plastic produce bags – put the produce right into your reusable cloth bag instead
  • Use reusable cloth bags for packaging your child's school lunch and snacks
  • Ditch bottled water – opt for reusable glass or stainless steel bottles instead
  • Buy milk and other beverages in reusable glass bottles