Plastic bags withstand the test of time … and politicians

As the residents of Washington, D.C. struggled to dig out from under this winter’s record snowfall, they were confronted with another affliction.  Only this one was not courtesy of Mother Nature, but was imposed on them by their own government. 

Already suffering from rising unemployment and soaring poverty rates, Washingtonians must now shell out 5 cents for every bag, plastic or paper, they carry away from the store.  According the District’s Department of the Environment, plastic bags, in particular, are responsible for polluting the local Anacostia River, where, among other things, they are said to “trap fish, birds and other wildlife, or become lodged in their stomachs.”

The notion that plastic bags pose a threat to waterborne wildlife is as fashionable as it is false.  It is based on a 1987 Canadian study that investigated the harm to marine mammals and sea birds from discarded fish nets.  For reasons never fully explained, Australian researchers, in a follow-up study fifteen years later, mistakenly attributed the death of 100,000 animals to plastic bags instead of the “plastic litter” cited in the Canadian research.

“Plastic bags do not figure in entanglement.  The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines, and strapping bands,” David W. Laist, an analyst with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, told the Times of London (March 8, 2008).  “Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag,” Laist went on.  “The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for a few species.  For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either.”

Even though plastic bags’ alleged harm to marine mammals was debunked two years ago, Washington, D.C. is only one of several cities not to have gotten the messages.  San Francisco and Oakland have banned the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and pharmacies, and other jurisdictions are considering similar action.

British Prime Minister Gordom Brown and the United nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have been at the forefront of international efforts to ban the use of plastic bags.  “The danger that single-use plastic bags inflict on the environment is such that strong action must be taken,” Brown told the London Guardian in February 2008.  “If government compulsion is needed to make the change, we will take the necessary steps.” 

Such rhetoric ignores the good plastic bags have done.  In recent years, polyethylene bags, usually made from petroleum or natural gas, have largely displaced the more traditional, and cumbersome, paper sack as a means of carrying items from the store to the home or office. They are not only easier to carry, but they also have substantial environmental benefits.  Studies have shown that they require 40 percent less energy to make than do paper sacks, and they produce only 4 percent of the waste that paper produces.


About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.