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Cities Take Up the “Ban the Bag” Fight

Why new policies across the nation could mean the end of plastic bags.

Plastic Bag photo by Kate Ter Haar

Photo by Kate Ter Haar.

Environmental activists are reducing plastic waste pollution by tackling disposable plastic bags, one city at a time. About 20 U.S. cities and towns have passed disposable bag reduction laws, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Whether they impose a nominal fee for single-use, disposable bags, or ban them altogether, the laws encourage consumers to develop habits to replace disposable bags, particularly those made from plastic.

The most recent city to join the effort to ban the bag is Portland, Ore., which has banned single-use plastic bags at the checkouts of large retailers. The change was met with overwhelming support from most Portlanders, says Stiv Wilson of 5 Gyres Institute, who helped give out free reusable bags at grocery stores to ease the transition for shoppers on October 15, when the ban took effect.

The Portland ordinance, unanimously approved by Portland City Council, was the culmination of a four-year campaign by the Surfrider Foundation Portland Chapter, 5 Gyres Institute, and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. It reflects growing public concern about the environmental impact of disposable plastic.

“Plastic bags typically have a low recycling rate, seem to be littered often and have an easy alternative in reusable bags,” says Bill Hickman, coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation’s “Rise Above Plastics” program. “We hope that people understand some of the unintended consequences that go along with a disposable lifestyle.”

plastic bag still
The Majestic Plastic Bag
The epic journey of a plastic bag from its release into the wild to ultimate destination in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Disposable shopping bags are a significant source of plastic pollution in the oceans, where scientists have identified five huge gyres of “plastic soup.” “We’ve reached a tipping point where we can’t keep up with the stuff that’s in the ocean,” says Wilson, who has visited three of the gyres for research. “I’ve seen it firsthand, and it’s startling.”

Proponents of ban-the-bag ordinances have faced powerful industry-backed counter-campaigns. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing plastics manufacturers, defeated legislation for a statewide ban on single-use bags in California, and spent $1.4 million in Seattle in 2008 to defeat a referendum that would have imposed a 20-cent fee on disposable grocery bags. Plastic bag manufacturer and recycler Hilex Poly Company funded a campaign that defeated Oregon’s proposed statewide ban earlier this year.

Campaigners hope the success of municipal ordinances will motivate grocers to support statewide bans in the near future.


Rebecca Leisher wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Rebecca is a former YES! intern.

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