As concern over plastic pollution in oceans, rivers, and roadways grows, jurisdictions around the country are banning plastic bags or placing a mandatory fee on them. In Maryland, lawmakers are proposing a plastic shopping bag ban, while in neighboring Virginia, there are proposals to implement a five-cent fee.“It’s a plastic pollution crisis worldwide,” says Martha Ainsworth with the Sierra Club in Prince George’s County. “We really can’t afford to wait another year.”
Since 2012, Ainsworth has organized volunteers to observe shopper bag use outside grocery stores in Maryland. In the latest study in 2019, volunteers observed 32,512 shoppers at 209 stores. In Prince George’s County, almost 9 out of every 10 used disposable plastic bags. “I’ll tell you what’s disappointing is when you stand an hour in front of a store, and you don’t see any reusable bags,” says Ainsworth. “It’s devastating.”
But there were two grocery chains in the county where shopper behavior was completely different, where nearly everybody either brought their own reusable bag, or used no bag at all. Lidl and Aldi—two German low-price grocery chains—offer no single-use plastic bags. Paper is available, but each bag costs a few cents. Shifting the cost of bags onto consumers—who can choose to avoid the cost by bringing their own bags—helps the stores keep prices low. “People who take the bags pay for them, and people who don’t take them don’t pay for them,” says Ainsworth.