A plastic bag ban may not be as green as you think

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky legislature will decide this session if it will join other communities across the country (and the globe) in banning single-use plastic bags like the ones we get at the supermarket. The initiative is pushed by well-intentioned environmentalists the world over—and, full disclosure, I’ve been grocery shopping with reusable bags for years. 

But, the science behind plastic bag bans isn’t as straight forward as you might think.

RELATED: Proposed bill would cut down on single-use plastics in Kentucky

Now, first of all, let’s get this out there: there is no question that single-use plastic bags are super bad for the planet. That’s especially true if you don’t dispose of them properly. 

Many animals can confuse them for food, and die. And, we’re terrible at recycling them. The EPA says Americans used 4.14 million tons of plastic bags and wraps in 2017, and only about 9% of them were recycled.

However, if a plastic bag ban causes us to opt for paper bags instead, we won’t be doing Mother Nature any favors. It is true that paper bags decompose better than plastic ones, meaning they are less of a problem for wildlife; but, they actually contribute more to climate change. 

A study from Britain’s Environment Agency found that it takes way more energy (and contributes to more emissions) to turn a tree into paper than to turn oil into a plastic bag.

RELATED: VERIFY: Does 90% of ocean plastic come from 10 rivers in Africa and Asia?

The goal of single-use plastic bans, of course, is to encourage more of us to invest in reusable bags. These can cut down on environmental harm, provided we use reuse them many times. 

However, if you do get—or if you already have—reusable bags, make sure you wash them frequently. A study from the University of Arizona found dangerous bacteria, including E. coli, in half of the reusable bags they tested; and, 97% of the people they interviewed said they never washed their bags. The researchers at UA recommended that any reusable bag campaign be accompanied with a public health awareness campaign to teach people how to wash their bags to stay safe and healthy.

All this said, though, should not be taken to suggest that pursuits on cutting down on plastic waste are not worthwhile. A study out of Denmark in 2018 suggests that the most environmentally friendly way to carry our groceries is to invest in polyester or plastic reusable bags, and then use them consistently (remembering, of course, to clean them).



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