More than 300 municipalities across the United States now ban or charge fees for single-use plastic bags. California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa have banned them, as have 55 countries. Thirty-one more have imposed a fee. It’s unclear how effective these laws have been overall. In some places the bans are barely enforced, particularly poor nations with weak or nonexistent waste collection systems. But in many places, usage has dramatically declined, and litter and its associated problems have been reduced.

The Problem With Plastic

The explosion in the use of these bags is a sign of the much larger problem of plastic waste, and our attitudes toward the earth’s resources. For all the convenience of free bags, we’ve been offloading the real costs of these things—including their disposal and the environmental damage they cause—to the larger public, points out Steve Cohen, former executive director of the Earth Institute.

Plastic bags don’t have to be single use: They can be reused, and the low-density polyethylene plastic (LDPE) they’re made of can be recycled, or burned with other things to produce energy. But in the United States, we recycle an estimated 5 percent of the bags and toss 100 billion away each year. And, they’re hard to recycle because they tend to jam sorting equipment at recycling facilities. If they don’t wind up in a landfill, the bags litter the landscape, clog storm drains and sewage treatment systems, pollute rivers and oceans, and choke and kill fish, turtles, seabirds and other wildlife.

The bags are not biodegradable (though biodegradable alternatives exist). But they break down into smaller pieces by wear and tear, exposure to ultraviolet light, and getting munched on by sea life. They can release toxic chemicals into the environment, and absorb toxins as well. When bags break down into micro-particles, the bits can be mistaken for food, ingested by sea life and work their way up the food chain. Scientists are still studying the implications of that.

So what is the best alternative? If you examine the life cycle of bags, taking into account production and transportation, paper has a larger carbon footprint than single-use plastic. Producing cotton for bags has an even larger environmental cost. How much of the paper is made from recycled material, or how the cotton is grown, and how many times the bags are reused all matter.

Bottom line? There’s no perfectly clean solution. But, taking something that took millions of years to form (fossil fuels) and tossing it away after using it once for a few minutes is wasteful. Filling the oceans with plastic refuse and threatening one of our main sources of food, oxygen and recreational pleasure? Crazy.

What You Can Do

If you’re already doing your part to reduce, reuse and recycle, what more can you do? Start by thinking bigger, but not too big—one community at a time.

“I think grassroots is where we’re going to make the changes,” said Terri Cain, an activist leading the charge for a plastic bag ban in Guilford, Conn. “We have to change the way we’re thinking.” Guilford is one of several Connecticut towns considering bans; some others already have. New York City passed a ban a few years ago but was forced to put that on hold while officials in Albany mull whether to adopt a statewide ban. Meanwhile towns on Long Island and in Westchester County have adopted bans or fees, or both.

Cain and others noted that trying to convince state lawmakers to pass a law can be daunting. The politics of competing interests and the influence of the chemical and retail industry lobbyists can pose obstacles. In fact, 10 U.S. states now have forbidden local communities from banning plastic bags. Bizbee, Ariz., put a ban in place in 2012 but was forced to rescind it after the state’s attorney general said the measure violated state law. The Texas Supreme Court ruled last summer that a ban in Laredo, and by implication bans in force in other towns, violated that state’s statutes.

Cain and many others are hoping local ordinances will help eventually change a lot of minds and build momentum for broader legislation. Here’s some best advice from those working on the issue.

To read the full story, visit