With Falmouth considering a ban or fee on plastic bags, it’s important to look at the facts instead of being blinded by hype and emotions.
The popular opinion is that plastic bags are having a devastating effect on the environment. Their production is harmful to the environment, they cannot be easily recycled, and they significantly contribute to the amount of waste we produce.
However, these popular claims are not as solidly based on science as their proponents would have you think. Let’s take a look at the first statement, that the production of plastic bags is harmful. Proponents often claim that plastic bag production uses 12 million barrels of oil each year. Banning plastic bags would decrease the global demand for oil, possibly lowering prices at the pump and lesson our dependence on foreign oil.
Except that claim isn’t quite true. Plastic bags are not made with crude oil in America. Instead, they’re made mostly from clean natural gas and natural gas liquids. Essentially, banning plastic bags would have no effect on crude oil consumption.
In fact, most studies show that the production of paper bags has a worse impact on the environment. Paper bags use more resources, and their production releases more pollutants than plastic bags.
What about the second claim, that plastic bags are difficult to recycle? Well, that’s not really true either. Many retailers accept used plastic bags and similar products for recycling. A quick search of the Greater Portland area found dozens of businesses willing to accept plastic bags. Beyond that, many households use “single-use” plastic bags multiple times. Growing up, my family recycled used plastic bags as makeshift lunchboxes, garbage bags, and backpacks all the time.
Of course, the most frequently made argument for banning plastic bags is that they are filling our landfills and polluting our environment. If you’ve continued this far in the article, you know what my answer to that claim is. It’s not true.
In 2011, a study published by the University of Maine School of Economics showed that plastic bags make up only .82% of the total waste produced in Maine. Newspapers, which can be easily recycled through curbside programs in many municipalities, accounts for almost three times as much waste as plastic bags.
In 2009, Steven Stein of Environmental Resources Planning conducted the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) survey. The results of that survey showed that plastic bag make up only 0.6% of litter nationwide. When we look at the numbers, instead of just listening to the hype, we find that plastic bags account for only the tiniest fraction of our nations litter and waste.
The alternatives to plastic bags are not without environmental concerns. Paper bags use many more resources in their production, and add more greenhouse gases than their plastic alternative. While they may be recycled at a higher rate, they tend to have worse overall environmental impact than the easy to produce plastic bags. Even reusable cloth bags have some negative attributes. Not only is their production more costly than plastic bags, but they require constant washing, which wastes water. A recent study by the Reason Foundation concluded that plastic bags actually had less of an environmental impact than the alternatives.
With Portland implementing a 5 cents use tax on plastic bags next year, and both Falmouth and Freeport are eyeing similar measures or all out bans. These efforts are based on misinformation and hype, not data. Data shows us that plastic bags are not a serious threat to our communities, and in many ways are more environmentally friendly than alternatives. Plastic bags create less pollution in production, are easy to recycle, and make up only a minuscule part of waste and litter.
Don’t listen to the anti-science propaganda. Listen to the data.