It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a...plastic bag.
Photo: New York Times
And the amount of those bags you see will not be decreasing in Indiana any time soon. You can thank state representative Ronald Bacon of the 75th district who authored a bill last year that regulates packaging material. House Bill 1053 prohibits a local government from imposing a ban, restriction, fee or tax on reusable or disposable ‘auxiliary containers’ (plastic bags) that are used to transport goods from a food or retail facility. Opponents of the bill call it an overstep of the state government on local governments. This legislature, signed into law in March 2016, came after a group in Bloomington, Indiana called Bring Your Bag Bloomington began working towards eliminating plastic bag usage in the city. Reasoning behind the bill from those supporting it say that it would hurt local industry that produce plastic bags while also creating patchwork of regulations throughout the state.
Plastic bag pollution- land, waterways, sea
Plastics bags pose a huge threat to ecological and human systems in Indiana, the United States, and throughout the world. Each year between 5 and 10 trillion bags are produced, used for an average of 20 minutes, and then disposed of. For 98% of bags this means being thrown away; only 2% are recycled.
Each recycled bag is melted, releasing toxic chemicals, and reformed into new plastic. This process still uses about two thirds of the energy of making a bag from virgin materials and is far from perfect. The new plastic is weaker than the original because some of the polymers break during the melting and are unable to be reused. Eventually, the plastic needs to be thrown out.
Still, those bags that are thrown out are an even larger problem. Each unrecycled bag can last for up to one thousand years, and during that time it can have a myriad of negative effects on our environment. While on land, bags not only leach toxins into soil but also block water seepage and root growth for many plants, decreasing soil fertility. Even once the bag has fully broken down, it continues to exist as a collection of micro-plastics and toxic chemicals.
However, the real problems begin once the bags make it to the ocean. 100 billion bags come out of the United States each year, which means 98 billion are dumped in the environment, many of these are washed out into the ocean. Due to ocean currents, this plastic often accumulates at the center of gyres, or circles of currents, and form what are known as garbage Patches. The largest of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), is twice the size of Texas and contains more than 2 million individual pieces of plastic every square mile.
Figure 1: A fact sheet of the GPGP
These Garbage patches are perhaps the single worst offender for the deaths and extinction of marine animals. Each year 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic. They either eat the plastic and then starve due to a lack of nutrients, or they become entangled and trapped, such as the turtle in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2: A turtle that grew up inside a soda six pack ring
Is Indiana alone? A look at other legislation, successful bans/taxes
Indiana is not alone! At least 4 other states have enacted similar legislation as Indiana in restricting local municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags. These other states include Michigan, Idaho, Arizona, and Missouri. Not surprisingly, these laws are enacted to appease businesses by restricting the legal authority of local municipalities within each of the states. Michigan for instance, passed legislation to appease the Michigan Restaurant Association (Michigan plastic bags). In Indiana, one of the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brent Steele, cited also cited similar reasons of industry and business groups that opposed plastic bag bans (IndyStar).
The legislators in these states have suppressed the voice of several municipalities and thousands upon thousands of citizens, in favor of a few companies that lobby and donate heavily to the legislators campaigns. These legislators are selling the voices of thousands for reelection money.
The ban against plastic bag bans should be removed
Ireland has a 22 Euro cent tax on every plastic bag, which is applied to the customer when they request a bag. This has resulted in much less plastic bags being purchased, which drastically decreases the capacity of plastic bags which can be littered. 14 bags are used on on average per capita per year, down an astonishing amount from 328 from before the levy. This means consumers are utilizing more sustainable bagging practices and there is less plastic bag pollution. There is a cost, however, after the levy was passed in 2002, one plastic bag manufacturer had to shut down, resulting in 26 jobs lost. A trivial price to pay in the face of this environmental adversity, which impacts more than just the surrounding region of plastic bag users.
This issue, however, expands beyond the environmental scope of the impacts of plastic bags. This ban silences the voice of the people so they can no longer create movements in their locality. This suppression can be seen then as a dangerous precedent where the powers of communities are lost to the power of the state, which is ultimately controlled, in situations like this, by industry groups. In this way the ban infringes upon our freedoms and is immoral. In many cities, such as Larchmont, NY, plastic bag bans or taxes have been enacted as a result of local action and citizens consensus. These cities and towns have been empowered to be able to act of their sovereign impulse, meaning the individuals who live there have decided collectively that they want to reduce the amount of plastic bags being put into their environment. This has no direct impact on the neighboring areas or how they choose to bag.
Plastic bags are a system which can be replaced. By looking at their impact on our environment we can see these bags are not sustainable and are causing harm. There are several alternatives to plastic bags which are more environmentally friendly, and ultimately less costly to both consumers and businesses. Furthermore, however, cities and towns should have their sovereignty in making decisions of this nature. In this way the ban against the local bans and tariffs for plastic bags is wrong and should be removed to enable a policy which empowers local communities to decide for themselves what is best.