Plastic Bag Bans: What They Are and Why They Don’t Work

Bag bill with a red slash through it

Remember how people tried to censor Elvis Presley and ban rock ‘n’ roll in general? It didn’t work, and the music came back stronger and better than ever.

You might say the same about plastic bags. Plastic bag legislation is happening worldwide, from bag fees at grocery stores to outright plastic bag bans. And like trying to ban Great Balls of Fire, it doesn’t work.

What’s a plastic ban bag?

A plastic bag ban is legislation that prohibits businesses from providing customers with lightweight “single-use” plastic bags at checkout.

Where are plastic bags banned?.

In the U.S., 10 states have enacted outright bans on plastic bags, with hundreds of counties and municipalities requiring some form of plastic bag restriction.

According to the United Nations, of the 127 countries with plastic bag legislation, 91 have “some type of ban or restriction on the manufacture or production, importation, and retail distribution of plastic bags.”

What’s the point of a plastic bag ban?

Depending on the area, a ban may allow reusable heavier plastic bags or prohibit plastic bags entirely. Supporters and promoters of plastic bag bans believe such bans will do one of two things:

  1. Encourage shoppers to reuse heavier plastic bags.
  2. Encourage shoppers to bring their own fabric reusable bags.

The intended result? The production of fewer plastic bags overall. This would lead to less litter, fewer bags in waterways and landfills, and less environmental harm from manufacturing.

Do plastic bag bans work?

In theory, yes.

In reality, no.

Bag bans are well-intentioned, but they tend to backfire.

Bans can reduce plastic bag litter and encourage the use of alternative options, such as heavier plastic bags and fabric totes. However, the outright banning of all plastic bags can also lead to unintended consequences.

Negative impact on the environment:

A 2024 study by the Freedonia Group examined a New Jersey bag ban and found shoppers were not reusing the heavier plastic bags (both woven and non-woven polypropylene) designed to be used up to 125 times. Instead, they were purchasing more reusable bags on each shopping trip. The result? The total weight of plastic bags used post-ban was higher than before the ban. Consumers opting to pay $.10 for a bag each time instead of reusing the ones they already had contributed to a 500% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  These changes resulted in mountains of plastic sitting in homes and landfills, as well as bag fees that affect those who can’t afford it most.

For communities that allow paper bags as an option, paper bags use more water in production, cost more to transport, and are harder to recycle. Of course, the production of paper bags means cutting down trees for virgin fiber. Plastic bags have a much smaller carbon footprint than paper bags.

Bag bans don’t change behavior

According to The New York Times, “Californians threw away more plastic bags [in 2023], by weight, than when the law first passed in 2014." Why? Zero change in consumer behavior. Thicker, non-woven plastic bags are designed with less impact on the planet, can be tossed in the washing machine, are easier to clean, and are intended to be recycled. The result should be the need for fewer plastic bags. Unfortunately, consumer mindset means these bags are often heartbreakingly tossed in the trash after just one grocery trip.

As New Jersey and California found out, banning bags doesn’t usually encourage people to reuse bags. It simply causes them to buy more plastic ones when they forget their cloth bags at home. If they don’t have access to a bag and film recycling program, those bags get sent to landfills.

Unfortunately, these consequences haven’t been enough to dissuade California legislators from pushing for increased bag bans. They’re now considering a total ban on plastic bags of any thickness at retail outlets. Shoppers could pay for a paper bag but would not have the option of plastic.

Instead of banning, let’s band together.

To put all of this in perspective, plastic bag bans are like trying to treat a complex medical issue with aspirin. Yes, plastic pollution is a problem, but the overall issue of pollution in the world is much larger. Ridding the world of plastics could make it much worse. For instance, food waste is a major hazard to the environment. What contributes greatly to preventing food from going bad on shelves and from being lost to spillage in transport? Safe, sanitary, economical plastic packaging.

The answer to pollution of any type won’t be found in demonizing materials, specific items, or the companies that produce them. The solution requires cooperation, collaboration, and commonsense approaches. Most importantly, it means educating the public on how to reuse plastic to create a closed-loop, circular economy that doesn’t require virgin resources.

The most effective solutions for plastic bags are ongoing reuse and effective, convenient recycling programs. Recycling innovations are on the rise, including the technology used by PreZero.

Please join us in creating a sustainable circular economy by supporting recycling efforts at every opportunity.