To Ban the Bag or Not to Ban the Bag?

BlueTubes make it easy for people to keep beaches clean and keep plastic out of the ocean by supplying clean, used plastic bags at dune crossovers. People grab a bag from the BlueTube, pick up trash and throw it away. Super simple. Very effective. Always ready.

Some people who don’t like plastic bags (does anyone really like them?) say that reusing plastic bags, even in BlueTubes, gives the impression that plastic bags are good when actually plastic bags are bad. Or they say we shouldn’t bring plastic bags to the beach at all, even when the bags are used to remove plastic trash and result in less plastic going into the ocean. These people say the bag must be banned. There has been growing talk of bag bans recently. It’s time to carefully look into the issue.

Reasonable people disagree over the issue of plastic bag bans. Passions run high on both sides of the debate, but neither side is as crazy as the other likes to imagine. They both make compelling points.

The bag banners say there are way too many bags, and they don’t biodegrade. Most bags end up in landfills, and too many end up in the outside environment where they cause havoc. Wildlife sometimes eat bags or get tangled up in them, and die. Plastic bags clog storm drains which can lead to flooding. They float off to sea and add to the plastic in the ocean. They are an eyesore.

Those against bag bans argue that bags are strong, light weight, convenient and can be recycled. Manufacturers buy used plastic bags to make plastic lumber, shopping carts, playground equipment and more bags. Bags are reused to line garbage cans, pick up dog poop and crochet (really), and that’s better than buying new, heavier bags to do the same thing.

I was munching on chips while researching these pros and cons when it hit me: my chip bag could not be recycled! There were no recycling arrows, no numbers, no loop, just a one-way trip to the landfill.

Plastic grocery bags, at least, have a loop. They have the potential to be sustainable, though now their loop is big, leaky and confusing. One leaky point in the loop: plastic bags should not be thrown in curbside recycling carts because they clog up equipment at sorting facilities. Instead, they can be returned to many stores. It is a little known fact that these bag recycling containers at stores also accept other plastic bags, films and wraps. Clean bags from bread, cereal, dry cleaning, newspapers and produce are accepted as are wraps and packaging around products like paper towels and plastic water bottles. Yes to plastic air pillows, but no to pre-washed salad bags and degradable bags. Frozen vegetable bags? Sometimes.

As a little experiment, I started collecting all the plastic packaging and wraps that can be recycled with plastic bags on my kitchen counter. The pile is growing quickly. It is easy to bring your own bags to the store to avoid using plastic bags, but if you want to buy toilet paper, you can’t avoid the plastic wrap around it.

Will banning the bag thwart efforts to recycle all the other plastic wraps and flexible packaging? What about the chip bag and the packaging that can’t be recycled? Are they ok even though plastic grocery bags are not? As with many things, the bag ban is more complicated than it first appears. Banning the bag is not the panacea that many hope it will be.

There is something in the works that will make both sides of the debate happy. “How2Recycle” is a new labelling system that will clear up a lot of recycling confusion. The plastic wraps on my counter should soon have labels that say they can be dropped off at stores for recycling. If consumers see that one bag of chips has a label with a line through the recycling arrows (as in no way can this be recycled) they may grab for the chips in the bag that can be recycled. That is strong incentive for companies to use plastic with a loop. Less confusion means more recycling and less contamination with plastic that doesn’t belong. If manufacturers have a bigger and better source of recycled plastic, they will use more recycled and less virgin plastic in their products. The How2Recycle Label should be on most products by 2016.

Recycling is about to get easier and better. In the meantime, reduce and reuse. Remember to bring your own bags when when you shop to reduce, but if you forget, you can reuse. Though crocheting plastic bags is intriguing, my favorite way to reuse bags is to donate them to BlueTubes. Add your clean, used plastic bags to BlueTubes at the beach so others can grab a bag, pick up trash, throw it away, and eliminate some of the leakiness from the loop and some of the plastic from the ocean.