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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Supermarket Plastic Bags Be Banned?

Randy Ritchey loads a plastic bag of groceries into the cart of Marianne Nielsen at the Fred Meyer store in Grants Pass, Ore. in January 2011. (Jeff Barnard/AP)

An increasing number of communities are banning the super-thin plastic bags commonly found in supermarkets. But what’s the alternative? Critics say paper bags may have a higher environmental cost.

Brookline, Mass., Aspen, Colo. and Austin, Texas, are among the cities and towns that have bans on plastic bags. Portland, Oreg. and Baltimore are among the places considering such bans.

Bangladesh banned the bags in 2002 because they clogged storm drains and caused flooding. China did the same in 2008, eliminating 40 billion bags per year and saving the 11.7 million barrels of oil it would have taken to make them, according to Rolling Stone magazine. Italy has also banned plastic bags.

Ireland, which charges a fee for plastic bags, says it has slashed the use of the bags by 90 percent. But there’s also evidence that people in Ireland are buying more – and thicker – plastic bags, for purposes once served by the free supermarket bags, for example lining garbage cans.

While China boasts its oil savings, critics of the bans on plastic bags argue that it takes more energy to create paper bags than plastic ones.

Meantime, plastic bag opponents counter that the energy use doesn’t matter, since it’s the afterlife of the plastic bag that is most harmful: blowing out of landfills and killing many thousands of marine animals that ingest them.

Would you be on board with a ban on plastic bags? Let us know on our Facebook page or in the comments below.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Eric Duncan

    Your guest is being disingenuous by not laying out the processing and energy costs to make those “little plastic pellets” if you want to lay out each step for one you have to for the other.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    The biggest problem is the cost of plastic bags is so easily externalized – the business or consumer using them don’t pay the costs these bags incur. It’s all externalized.

    The key is making plastic bags less economically viable and getting some of that income stream pushed to dealing with the issues of plastic bags.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    The overhead energy for plastic seem like it is a lot higher than paper considering the *full* material stream.

    What about non-disposable bags?  My family has been reusing the same 8 or 10 bags for at least the last 8 years.  Cotton or linen or hemp cloth will decompose after they are completely used up.

    We should outlaw *all* disposable bags – nature has no waste, and neither should we.


    • Harry Seaward

      You are such a hero

  • Ctomroll

    Whole Foods has banned plastic bags. That’s the best environmental policy they could’ve implemented.

  • Deporodh

    Tacoma enables consumer recycling easily: one puts all bags in one larger bag and ties it shut, put in co-mingled recycling.  It so STUPID that Oregon doesn’t!

    • Ember

       I agree, that should be a standard for all curbside recycling programs.  I wish we had that in Vancouver, WA, it would be convenient.  I end up filling the first plastic bag with all the others, tie it shut, toss it in my trunk, and then at some point when I have more bags of bags than trunk space I remember to take them into the store to recycle.

      • Thoughts from the east

        If you are willing to lug “bags of bags” in your trunk, why not try keeping reusable bags in your trunk and take them into the store to use?  It takes a little to get used to, remember to open the trunk and grab the bags every time you go in to a store, but very much worth it as you no longer have to deal with bags that roll around spewing your groceries everywhere in your trunk. Heavier handled bags allow you to load up and carry over your shoulder into the house.  I recommend canvas with a gusseted bottom so that they stand up like a paper bag.  It will last forever.  I also keep a small net bag in my coat pocket to use for unexpected stops in places like the drug store where I would use just a small bag. 

  • Quasiunc

    Before Portland banned plastic bags, we’d ask for them to be able to more easily carry our groceries on our walk home (especially in the rain). We’d be asked by the smug/condescending clerks at Whole Foods, etc. if we were sure. Yet, those same clerks would gladly & cheerfully validate parking for all the people that drove. Never quite understood the disconnect.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Buy yourself some reusable bags!  Plastic OR cotton bags are *waaaay* better for the environment.  They are 100X stronger.


  • Mhmarthaller

    Why is there no discussion on the alternative of reusable shopping bags

  • Dwainedibbly

    Portland Oregon began a plastic bag ban last year for large grocery stores. City Government voted last week to expand it to all stores by October 2013.

  • Cindycb

    Obviously the cities want to ban them with just reason, they should be able to. Wood is renewable, remembering that managing our resources is key. And too if it takes more people to create a paper bag, isn’t that a good thing?

    Ask any recycler how well those grocery store plastic bags make it through the conveyor belts?
    Personally I say any time we can eliminate plastic from the environment we should.

  • Eweisberg

    One of the  major issues with bag bans is that they have  been implemented by towns such as Brookline
    without viable alternatives have simply changed, rather than solved, the
    problem.  More progressive communities
    have recognized a solution that gives their citizens an alternative.  As discussed on the show, when bags are
    banned without solutions, the consumer is left to take actions that are even
    worse than plastic bags.  They tend to
    use paper bags, which are worse for the environment, or drive to the next town,
    which not only harms our environment, but also hurts local businesses.   

    Communities, including
    Brookline, that want to ban plastic bags are doing so because they are trying
    to eliminate plastic bag litter. Brookline allows an exception for
    bio-degradable bags that meet the ASTM 6400 standards.   ASTM 6400 is a standard for bio-degradable
    or compostable bags.  This sounds like a
    viable alternative. However, bags that meet those standards will  not degrade in your backyard composter or if
    they are littered. They require commercial composting facilities, of which
    there are none in the Eastern US.  This
    is not a solution to the littering problem.

    A better solution to
    the plastic bag litter and pollution problem is to allow bags that meet ASTM
    5272 standards for photo-degradation.   They provide a viable solution.  The clear advantages are:

    1.       -These
    bags look and act like plastic bags, but if they are littered or lost, they
    photo-degrade to a non-toxic residue within 240 days of exposure to sunlight.

    2.       -Photo-degradable
    bags such as the ECOgrade bag from GXT Green, use 15% less energy and produce
    34% less greenhouse gases than plastic in production. 

    3.       -They
    can be recycled with other plastics

    4.       -They
    cost about the same as plastic bags  

    By allowing ASTM 5272
    approved photodegradable bags to be used by retailers, legislators can achieve
    their goals without compromising the environment, convenience of their
    citizens, or hurting local businesses.  Brookline,
    because they did not understand the significant differences between bio-degradable
    and photo-degradable bags, did not allow photo-degradable bags in  their legislation.  I hope they will consider the science behind
    their decision before the law goes into effect, to truly set an example, and
    solve the bag issue without inconveniencing their citizens or hurting local
    businesses.  I’m sure that other
    communities will.


    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Why is paper worse than plastic?  Plastic comes from oil and/or natural gas – both of which are finite and non-renewable.  Plastic beads don’t appear out of thin air…


  • elijah2

    Address the issue of cockroaches and paper bags. 

    Cockroaches feed on the paste that holds paper bags together. They lay their eggs in the seams as bundles of these bags sit on pallets in warehouses.  We bring these eggs into our homes when we bring these infested bags home from the store.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Is that the best argument you can muster?  If what you say is true, then why have I never seen a cockroach in my house?


      • elijah2

         It happens. Some bags are infested, some aren’t. Hard to keep cockroaches out of food warehouses in many parts of the USA. 

        Count your blessings & keep your house clean.

  • Katherinechoyt

    Supermarkets where I have bought my groceries here in San Diego and before that in Washington, DC, had special bins where people put their plastic bags for recycling.  I assume that they are, in fact, recycled.  You should mention that. 

  • Deporodh

    Europe has expected its consumers to bring their own market bag since I was in high school (forty years ago). The “market basket” is a commonplace! 

    I carry a pair of handmade French net bags in my purse that I have used since 1980, and they’re still going strong.  Would buy more as gifts if I could get the same sort!

    • Eric Duncan

       My wife has knitted net bags. The knit compresses a good deal when not in use but will expand to accommodate a good deal of material. An excellent sweat equity switch out.

    • Harry Seaward

      Europe also is a cesspool of communism and know-it-all failed liberalism. Funny how some folks pick and choose what suits their narrative.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

     On reusable bags – on Earth Day this year I was cleaning up the Fens in Boston, I can tell you I none of the dozens of bags I picked up were reusable bags.

  • Susan Naslund

    You might be interested to know that there is a group in my town which uses plastic bags to make “plarn,” or plastice yarn, which is then woven into sleeping mats for the homeless.  They also make tote bags and other items.  Look up “Wil-Mat Project” on facebook for more info.  With some ingenuity, we can find many other ways to reuse plastic bags.

  • guest

    The option to re-use plastic shopping bags has become a non-option. The majority of those bags now have small holes making them useless for cleaning up after your dog, or to hold a wet swimsuit, two (re)uses  suggested by your guest. My cynical side would suggest that this reflects a choice by retailers to a) save money on plastic shopping bags by making cutting corners in production and b) to force consumers to BUY plastic bags in order to clean up after pets, etc.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Putting perfectly biodegradable pet poop inside plastic bags is another very silly use of plastic.  Waxed paper bags, or a shovel/scoop is the only thing that does make sense.

      Disposable plastic = oxymoron


  • Master Recycler in Oregon

    You are doing a real disservice to this issue by not having anyone on the program that understands the waste / recycling stream.  If any of your guests had been to a MRF (Materials Recycling Facility) instead of getting anecdotal evidence, they would realize that the problem with recycling plastic bags is entirely to do with the fact that we collect recyclables in a “mixed” fashion, which then need to be sorted – you should see the volumes these facilities are dealing with, the type of equipment that does the sorting (and the speed at which the line moves, for the portions of the process that involve people.  Those plastic bags shut the machinery down!  

  • Thoughts from the east

    A better solution to a ban would be to make supermarkets charge for bags as is done in Europe.  My guess is that just about everyone would switch to bringing their own bags, no matter which kind they preferred.  My local supermarket offers a price reduction for each bag of your own that you use. 

    The management of our local landfill hates plastic bags!  They have had to erect 20 ft high fencing to prevent them from blowing around.  Just look to the down wind side of any store parking lot and you will see where plastic bags end up — in the trees, fields, yards, drainage grates, etc. of the neighboring property.

  • Marcialou

    I don’t know what the process is, but our local grocery chain collects these plastic bags and turns them into seating benches that have appeared in our park and in front of fire houses. They are extremely substantial and comfortable benches.

    Personally, I am guilty of using the bags for my waste baskets. I own a number of “permanent” grocery carrying bags but seldom use them so as to collect the plastic bags.  Oriented towards vegetables, most all of our kitchen scraps get composted in bins in my backyard. At age 80, I know for most of my life we did not put plastic bags in our waste baskets. My dilemma…what do I use in my kitchen and bathroom for those items I can’t compost? I’d gladly give up plastic bags if I knew of substitutes. Any ideas out there?

    • Halle

      It’s still plastic, but I use the plastic packaging bags from such items as  potato chips, cereal, the Sunday paper, Subway sandwiches, wrapping of computer parts, shipping envelopes, dry dog food, cat litter, etc.  I use these small bags as my little trash bags, esp. for cat litter clean-up.  Sometimes I have to staple them shut, since they do not tie easily.  Then I put them in my (plastic) garbage bin.  By being on the lookout for these other plastic bags that are everywhere in life, collecting and reusing them, I almost never have to use plastic when shopping as an excuse to have them on hand .  I use my own cotton or jute bags instead when shopping.

  • Thoughts from the east

    Anyone ever run in to a business that would NOT allow you to use your own shopping bags?  One local store told me I could not use my own bags.  They also would not allow me to carry my one item (paid for) out of the store without a plastic bag.  I explained why I wanted to use either my own bag or no bag and they still wouldn’t budge.  So I asked for an immediate refund of the item and have never shopped there again.  Went to an on-line rating site and shared this information.  I truly believe that consumers have the power to force change, but only if we act. 

  • Ron Guest

    Problem simple, but not easy, to solve. Prohibit all stores from using either paper or plastic bags. People would have to do a one-time purchase of a reuseable, durable bag. As to lining little trash buckets, get rid of them. Use a single 30 gallon one. As to doggy gifts, a reuseable container could be invented, and I trust someone knows how to recycle the stuff.

  • Tncaneoguy

    What about the making of those pellets?  

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       They don’t appear out of thin air!  LOTS of energy was spent even just to find the oil, let alone drill, extract, transport, refine, and then synthesize it to form the little pellets.  It takes lots of energy to build the extrusion machines, too.

      I thought that Ms. Twede was totally disingenuous on this point.  She only partially “made up” for it later in her comments about reusable bags.


      • Wangster

        Neil – Oil exploration and refining is done for many more reasons than making plastic bags. To lump these costs into the cost of a plastic bag is unfair. some people always cherry pick statistics to make their opinion favourable.

        • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

           Yes, of course.  And little plastic beads come from where?

          The speaker on the show was ignoring the facts when she said that plastic bags start out as plastic beads.

          And it takes big machines to extrude them into a thin film – long ago I actually operated such a machine that extruded high density polyethylene into the flattened tube that is then made into the plastic bags we are discussing.

          Paper decomposes back into the basic elements of life – where does the plastic go?  Trees can grow again from the same exact molecules in the paper – what grows from plastic?


  • Tncaneoguy

    How about using something other than trees to make bags?  Cotton is an obvious source to make reusable bags, and other sources of fiber are available.  I have fabric bags I’ve been using for years.  How is the comparison between the cloth bag I’ve used for years and all of the plastic bags I would have used?  

  • Lyndall

    As a South African I am proud that we’ve been addressing this issue of plastic bags for more than a decade.  Stores charge for plastic bags, which is a great incentive to bring one’s own bags.  We were way ahead of the U.S. and this strategy cut down on plastic bag use dramatically.

  • Slt0757

    There should be an incentive for people to carry their own, reusable, shopping bags by markets and department stores that have to supply their customers shopping bags.  It will cut down on the costs to everyone and to the environment.  

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Some stores like Trader Joe’s do have incentives; like a weekly raffle for those who bring their own bags.


  • Shannon Rule

    I have been using the same sturdy grocery bags for 7 years and other bags for other types of shopping. We only occasionally get plastic bags, and we empty our garbage cans into one bag instead of lining all the cans. We buy bags to line the kitchen garbage, but we recycle and compost so use only about 1 bag per week. We’re a family of 6!

  • SuziVt

    I recycle everything that I can. I recycle at work and my coworkers make fun of me, even though we have bins available for cardboard, glass, cans, and plastic. It drives me crazy, however, whether or not you recycle, that plastic lasts nearly forever! We use oil to make them, and we fight wars over oil. Sometimes we may need plastics, but we need to wean ourselves off of it. I have one of those cloth bags that is lined with a very thin layer of plastic. Eventually that peeled off, bit by bit. Who knows where that ended up. Let’s recycle, but let’s not kid ourselves that there is no environmental damage if we do.   

  • Jeffrey Blair

    I was just listening to the  reasons why these bags are not recycled . 

    It is because the Human Animal is to lazy to recycle most products. I ride a Bicycle and I see may forms of recyclables that are just litter. 
    This company is a great what to recycle http://www.terracycle.com/en-US/This is a good video on what plastics are doing to the Earthhttp://www.terracycle.com/en-US/

  • Steven B.

    I was a student of Diane’s and graduated from MSU with a BS in Packaging.

    Frankly the fact that we use disposable bags at all is mind-blowing and this practice only started in the past century.  

    In regards to disposable bags, both the plastic and the timber industries oppose the use of the ideal packaging material, hemp.  It is renewable, grows 4 times as fast as trees, requires fewer chemicals to make into paper, and the fibers are superior in all regards, allowing it to be recycled many times more than conventional paper.  Hemp paper can even be soaked and dried back into its original form.  There are also countless other benefits of hemp which I won’t go into, but its legality is simply due to lobbying/corruption from these industries. 

    In regards to paper vs plastic, paper wins hands down regarding its effects on the environment.  When the plastic industry claims how little energy it takes to make a few pellets into a bag, they are intentionally leaving out all the costs of creating the pellets.  I personally feel that not only should plastic bags be banned, but most plastic as well.  The effects on humans are devastating,  not to mention on life as a whole.  Cancer rates have skyrocketed since the introduction of plastic in our daily lives and every year we find out more and more of our packaging is poisoning us.  It takes years to get this information out to the public and these industries are notorious for manipulating relevant data.  

    Bags are convenient,  but the costs are too much to pay.  Ban plastic, ban paper, use something that actually makes sense, not just lots of money.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

       ” Cancer rates have skyrocketed since the introduction of plastic in our daily lives”

      First of all, that is incorrect. 

      Second of all, (assuming for the sake of argument it is correct) temporal correlation does not equal causation.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Disposable plastic = oxymoron

    Plastic we “throw away” never really goes “away” – it has already entered the food chain via plankton and fish.  Washing clothing made from synthetic fiber has already completely contaminated the ocean with tiny bits of plastic.  The large pieces of plastic we “throw away” will eventually physically break into smaller and smaller pieces, but the material will be here virtually forever…  (We can only hope that some bacteria/microbe evolves to be able to “eat” plastic!)


    • elijah2

      Golf balls never decompose. In a few billion years, the Marianas Trench will be filled with ‘em, as they all roll to the lowest point on earth.

      I gave up golf because I can’t stay out of water hazards.

      • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

         Golf balls are not the biggest problem we have with disposable plastic.  But you’ve got the general idea.

  • Alice

    Everybody should be using LL Bean canvas totes. They are purchased once and will live longer than you will,  they come in a variety of sizes, they have handles, short or even shoulder length if wanted, can be used for heavy shopping or light, and many other things too (weekend car trips for example,  or airplane carry-ons) and are handsome and extremely well-made. Been using them for years and get compliments on them *constantly*. If most people had a couple of these in their household and used them for the rest of their lives you can’t seriously expect me to believe that the environmental impacts are  comparable! 

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

       Another big advantage of the handles on reusable bags is I hook them over the headrests in my hatchback, and they don’t fall over and spill stuff.

      Any bag made from natural fiber is great, and even reusable bags with plastic are much, much better than any disposable bag.

  • Bob Cunningham

    I would like to suggest to the listener who pleaded for mercy because she uses her plastic bags to clean up after her pets that she take a more environment-friendly approach and spend the small amount to BUY compostable pet-waste bags from her local pet-supply store.  She doesn’t have to rely on the free bags; there are several brands of inexpensive compostable bags available.

  • AS

    Heard Hear and Now this
    morning and the comparison of paper bag production versus plastic bag
    production was absurd. Dr Twede described the process of paper bag production from a
    living tree through to paper bag as if all paper bags must be derived from
    virgin tree stock rather than recycled paper. Then she compared that to plastic
    bags which – in her description – start life as “little balls of


    This conveniently leaves out the
    energy and ancillary efforts required to extract petroleum or natural gas from
    the ground, transport the raw oil or gas to a refinery, crack the petroleum
    into its components, process the components into ethylene monomer, process the
    ethylene monomer into polyethylene balls, transport these “amazing”
    little balls to the place where the bags are made… not to mention the cost
    and energy consumed sending our military to far outposts to keep the petroleum
    supply secure or spending vast sums of public money to clean up the
    environmental mess that fracking will inevitably cause if the
    “amazing” balls are made from natural gas derived from US sources.


    Is Dr. Twede you perhaps funded by the
    petroleum industry? Or does she really think these “amazing” little
    balls of polyethylene monomer grow naturally throughout the US near to the
    plants where the plastic bags are made?


  • ejm3rd

    I’m surprised that no besides eweisberg has mentioned biodegradable, compostable plastic.  There are plastic bags that break down in to soil within 3-6 months and are made from renewable materials.  http://www.vegware.us/ has more information or email emartens@vegware.us.

  • Decappa

    BAN THEM PLEASE! First read the book Garbology. Thanks!

  • Ilsap

    I was very disappointed that Robin Young, who normally asks a lot of very good questions, just let the woman from the packaging program get away with saying that all those trees are murdered to make paper bags.  Has she not noticed that most brown bags are made from RECYCLED paper?  A paper bag will become dirt in my compost pile, which is more than I can say about anything made from plastic. 

    The life-cycle analysis is all fine and dandy for measuring energy to make things, but I think folks need to concentrate on the DEATH cycle analysis, and plastic bags never die; they just break down into more and more microscopic pieces of plastic. In addition, there was no discussion about how few of those plastic bags actually get recycled.  They may be re-used a couple of times, at best, but they they eventually just get thrown out or are allowed to blow around the landscape until they are nothing more than ten million bits of polymer.  Only 20% of all plastic beverage bottles are ever recycled. I am sure that the rate of recycling of plastic bags is no better.The energy required to make a cloth bag might be greater than energy needed to make a plastic bag, but my cloth grocery bags are 10-20 years old. Whatever energy was needed to make those bags is far far less than the collective amount of energy and resources needed to make the thousands of plastic bags that would have been required to do the same amount of work as the cloth bags. The argument that people need plastic shopping bags to pick up dog poop is crazy.  There is an overabundance of other kinds of plastic bags in our lives…..produce comes in bags; cereal comes in plastic bags; magazines show up in plastic bags; newspapers arrive at peoples’ doorsteps in plastic bags. Unfortunately there is an endless supply of incidental plastic bags in all of pour lives, thousands of alternatives to giant shopping bags.  Do people really need a bag capable of holding 3 gallons of milk to pick up the droppings of a maltese terrier?  But ultimately, the big gorilla in the room is that we consume/buy too much stuff and waste most of it.  Spend some time studying the garbage industry and the disgusting practice of “landfilling,” and pretty soon you realize that plastic bags are no worse than plastic clamshell food containers, plastic bottles of hand soap, bottled water, plastic toys, acrylic clothing, Croc shoes, plastic furniture, and on and on.  Get rid of all of it.

    • Wangster

      I’ve heard that recycling paper bags is more energy intensive than manufacturing plastic bags. But i tend to hear different stats all the time in this regard. I have a question though, why can’t you reuse your plastic bags like you do your cloth bag? Don’t pull this holier than thou BS with the use of a 20-30 year old cloth bag but then you would have gone through thousands of palstic bags in that same time. I think there’s a use for plastic bags that cloth bags just aren’t as good for. I use both and it works well for me. I hardly get plastic bags when I go shopping, and the few times I do I use them dozens of times again… not a couple times at best like you state.

  • snapperblue

    Not only can you not mix these bags with other recycling, there are often few places where you can return them for reprocessing.  As long as use is legal, all stores that use thin plastic bags should be required to have a LARGE bin for returned bags and should be required to recycle them.  

  • rick evans

    Coincidentally, Stop and Shop is ending its $0.05 reward for reusable bag use. I guess it was hurting the bottom line although  Stop and Shop would have you believe it’s because the nickel reward has lost its effectiveness encouraging adoption. Hmm, I adopted using my S&S bags before I knew about the reward. Well at least they did donate some money to an environmental cause. I’ll continue using the bags; especially at Target which still gives the nickel and is closer to where I live. ;-)

  • Unitunt

    Plastic should not ban from supermarket, it should be free for shoppers. This is America, it
    is not a second class country. Plastic bags have nothing to do with environment damage,only
    the troublemakers will say that.

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