Letter To The Editor: Why Ban Single-use Carryout Plastic Bags

Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club

The United States used over 100 billion plastic bags in 2009. Significant resources are used to create these bags –oil or natural gas are used as the feedstock. And considerable energy is used transporting them to the stores where they are dispensed.

The very idea of using scarce and expensive resources on an item intended to be used once, for a few hours, and then thrown away is the antithesis of sustainability.

These bags are intended to be used once to carry groceries or other purchases to the car, then to the house, and then be discarded. Many opponents of a bag ban say they make additional use of the bags before disposal. I have no doubt this is true for those people, but the statistics show that most bags are not reused.

And even if they are reused, they still go into the trash, where they eventually end up in the ocean, scattered over our landscape, or in a landfill where they do not decompose for hundreds of years, and remain a problem if they ever make their way back to the surface. 

It should also be noted that there are biodegradable products available for all of the uses to which these bags are reused by some. They have to be paid for, but that cost reflects the fact that they are not hard on the environment.

Recycling might seem to be a partial solution to this problem. But only about 12 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the US. And our county has found that most of the plastic bags it accepts for recycling are sent to the landfill by the recycler because of lack of a market for them. They are also a problem for the recycler because they tend to jam the machinery.

The production and sale of these bags by the plastics industry presents a prime example of what economists call a negative externality – the plastics industry profits from the sale of the bags, and the taxpayers are left with the expense of cleanup, which in the case of the oceans is so enormous as to be impossible. Although individual action to reduce or eliminate use of these bags is desirable, only government regulation can be truly effective. 

The plastics industry is fighting against regulation. We have seen this before, when the industries fought against elimination of leaded gasoline or restrictions on the advertisement and use of tobacco, despite the known impact on our health. We have many examples to show that industrialists do not care about the effect of their product on the common good if there are profits to be made.

The action we are requesting will cause some cost and inconvenience. However, good reusable bags are long lasting and relatively inexpensive. And even if you forget to bring the bags into the store, it is easy to put the items back in the cart un-bagged, and to bag when you reach your car. We are already accustomed to doing this at Costco or Sam’s Club.

We may think here in Los Alamos that this is not our problem, since our plastic bags mostly end up in landfills rather than the ocean. But the impacts on the ocean show up in our food prices and in the general degradation of the planet we live on. Many communities have already taken this action.

Are we really unwilling to accept any inconvenience to help with a problem that is now and will in the future have a huge impact on the livability of our planet?