According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled. Many of the bags find their way into our waterways via drains and sewage pipes, where they account for over 10% of the debris washed up on the U.S. coastline.

Disposable plastic bags are a problem because they are produced from non-renewable resources. If thrown away, they accumulate in landfills where they do not biodegrade for hundreds of years. If not disposed of properly, they accumulate in the environment, where they photodegrade, meaning that they continue to break down into smaller and smaller and more toxic “petro-polymers” which contaminate both soil and water, and enter the food chain because they are eaten by marine life. This is a significant public health problem, because the humans eating the contaminated fish then ingest these toxic and harmful chemicals.

Communities are continuing to consider strategies to reduce the number of plastic carry-out bags from grocery stores and other retail outlets. Regulating plastic bags can significantly diminish harmful impacts to oceans, rivers, lakes and the wildlife that inhabit them. Minimizing bag use can also relieve pressure on landfills and waste management. By using reusable cloth bags, each person can save six bags a week, averaging to more than 22,000 plastic bags per person per lifetime. Ireland began a plastic bag tax in 2002, and current plastic bag consumption in that country has been reduced by 90%.

In 2009, the District of Columbia enacted a law to set a fee of 5 cents for distribution of all disposable plastic bags.  Eight states—California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington—are considering a fee or tax on the distribution of bags, which a shopper will have to pay, either directly or indirectly, with proposed fees ranging from 1 cent to 15 cents per bag. Hawaii would impose fees ranging from 5 cents to 25 cents if the state finds that distribution of single-use bags has not decreased 75 percent by a specified date. Depending on the state, the revenue would go to state parks, school districts, community improvement trusts or other public programs.

A disposable bag fee is a first step toward the goal of eventually moving away from disposable bag use in the future if the desired results are not achieved. Another goal of a plastic bag tax ordinance is to reduce the use of disposable bags in general, not to shift from one type of single-use item to another. Instead of providing an alternative disposable option, encouraging the use of disposable bags, it is in the best interest of the environment to encourage the use of reusable bags. In addition, many biodegradable bags do not properly break down in composting facilities, and do not break down at all in landfills. Biodegradable shopping bags can be cost-prohibitive for stores to use as well.

The fee will not apply to anyone who participates in a federal or state food assistance program. In addition, a portion of the revenue collected from the fee will go toward purchasing reusable bags that will be distributed to the community, including low-income populations.

Plastic bags are very difficult to recycle due to the limited aftermarkets for the material. They must be clean, dry, and placed in a collection container specifically for bags. These containers are available at most grocery stores, but they cannot be recycled in curbside programs, and cause a lot of problems when residents put their recyclables in them. They clog the machinery that sorts other recyclables, resulting in equipment shutdowns so that they can be cut out by hand.

Stores will keep a percentage of the fee to cover the costs of complying with the ordinance. The remaining money will be given to cities for the following:

  • Administrative costs associated with developing and implementing the fee;
  • Providing reusable bags to the community;
  • Educating residents, businesses and visitors about the impacts of disposable bags;
  • Funding programs and infrastructure that allow the community to reduce waste associated with disposable bags;
  • Purchase and install equipment to minimize bag pollution;
  • Fund community cleanup events; and
  • Mitigate the effects of disposable bags on the city’s drainage system and environment.

As Lily Belanger of the No Impact Project has noted, plastic bags are not necessities nor are they central to the health and prosperity of communities. However, they have a significant negative impact on the environment, polluting our beaches, clogging storm drains, and costing cities millions of dollars to ship them to landfills. This will be an incentive for customers to opt for reusable bags, and greatly lessen the impact of our throwaway culture.