Plastic bags are not biodegradable and can do great harms to wildlife. Cities and states across the country are banning plastic bags, but those bans may be having unintended consequences.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Plastic bags, as you may know, have a bad reputation. They're not biodegradable. They're seen as a toxic pollutant that can do great harm to wildlife. Some states and hundreds of cities have now passed bans on plastic bags or demanding a fee if you use one. But those bans may be having unintended consequences.
NPR Newsletter Editor Greg Rosalsky joined Stacey Vanek Smith on our podcast The Indicator from NPR's Planet Money to explain.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Your newsletter - it was like a love letter to the plastic bag.
GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Yeah, love letter might be a little much. I do love plastic bags, though, I do.
VANEK SMITH: So tell us what you found.
ROSALSKY: So I talked to this economist. Her name's Rebecca Taylor. Taylor recently published this super interesting study about bag bans in California.
REBECCA TAYLOR: What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic carry-out bags were banned.
ROSALSKY: So people would reuse their bags to, like, line trash bins...
VANEK SMITH: Oh, I do that.
ROSALSKY: Do you use them to pick up dog poop? Because that's another common thing...
VANEK SMITH: I don't have a dog (laughter).
ROSALSKY: I don't either. But all these people who reuse their plastic bags - they still needed bags.
TAYLOR: Small garbage bags - they went up by 120% - their sales did. Medium bags went up by 60%.
ROSALSKY: And so here's the crucial thing that she told me. Garbage bags are actually thicker than shopping bags, so they use more plastic.
TAYLOR: I find that about 30% of the plastic that was eliminated by banning carry-out bags comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags.
ROSALSKY: But here's the thing. These bans didn't apply to paper bags.
VANEK SMITH: OK.
ROSALSKY: And that led to a huge increase of paper use.
VANEK SMITH: I always get paper grocery bags.
ROSALSKY: OK. Stacey, so like, please, like, do not hate me for pointing this out...
VANEK SMITH: OK.
ROSALSKY: But so, actually, there are multiple studies - they all show that, actually, paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic.
VANEK SMITH: Really?
ROSALSKY: Yeah. So paper bags have this one really great thing for them, which is they are biodegradable. They will eventually break down. But you have to use way more energy to create them. So we have a major uptick of trash bag sales, and then we have a major uptick of paper bag use. That's why Taylor says banning plastic shopping bags ends up increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
VANEK SMITH: So I would say this leaves us with nothing, but there is a kind of bag that I use all the time. And, you know, this is public radio, so we cannot have this conversation without bringing up the noble tote bag.
ROSALSKY: Stacey, no. I don't want to have to say this but I have to. There's a study from the U.K. government. And they found a person would have to use a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once.
VANEK SMITH: What? OK, Greg. But, like, we can't just carry things around in our arms. Like, what are we supposed to do?
ROSALSKY: You should reuse the same bag over and over again. Now, that bag should probably not be organic cotton. Use one that's, like, polyester or a somewhat durable plastic.
But then there's kind of the broader policy question. Taylor thinks a fee is smarter than a ban. That's because they're both equally effective when it comes to the goal of encouraging reuse.
TAYLOR: So about 50% of customers begin using reusable bags under both a ban and under a fee.
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ROSALSKY: So impose a fee and encourage reuse.
VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.
ROSALSKY: Greg Rosalsky, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.