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Opinion: Folly of the Plastic Bag Ban

One resident at Town Meeting said that banning “single use” plastic bags was not “rocket science,” and since enough fellow residents agreed with her, Longmeadow will be without them at the grocery store. It may not be “rocket science,” but it is a matter of mathematics and understanding human behavior. By those measures, this law was a bad idea that will very likely have the opposite of its intended effect.

I have been pretty progressive when it comes to Longmeadow town issues. Before, during, and after I served on the Select Board, I have supported water conservation policies. I helped push through full day, universal kindergarten in my last year on the Board. I drafted the town’s complete streets bylaw that promotes biking, walking, and public transportation. But this plastic bag ban is more political correctness than progressive. The law may feel like it would be helpful to the environment, but it is not.

Environmental issues tend to be cast as questions of morality, as if there is always a binary choice between doing the right thing for the environment and doing the wrong thing. In reality, it is almost always pretty complicated. And the right policies are often counter-intuitive. Take, for example, the disposable diaper vs. cloth diaper debate. It turns out they have about the same environmental impact.

While swaddling your baby’s bum in a reusable cloth diaper seems better for the environment, those cloth diapers are generally made of cotton. Cotton is a very thirsty crop, requiring large amounts of water in places like India, where cotton is grown. Fertilizers for cotton produce their own greenhouse gases, and fertilizers run off into drinking water supplies. And then there is the water and the electricity used to wash the diapers, and if you are using a laundering service, there is the gasoline used for the trucks to transport the dirty and clean reusable diapers hither and yon.

There are still other factors which have been analyzed by researchers, but you get the idea. It’s complicated, and in the end, it’s a wash.

If you dig into the facts about plastic bags, it turns out that the substitutes have their own substantial negative impacts on the environment. The old paper vs. plastic debate, which used to be its own test of virtue, gets complicated by the fact that a paper bag requires more energy to create and transport. You would have to re-use the paper bag four times to make it more environmentally friendly than the plastic bag, according to one Australian study.

A cotton bag, due to the aforementioned negative effects of cotton production and other factors, would have to be re-used 173 times before it becomes a better choice for the environment. For green-friendly bags made of recycled plastic, one would have to re-use the bag 53 times before it becomes superior to the reviled “single use” plastic bag.

This is where a common sense view of human behavior is necessary. First of all, are the “single use” bags really single use? They are commonly used for dog poop and as liners for small waste baskets, among other things. I find them to be great for backpacking, where cheap, lightweight, waterproof bags are ideal for keeping stuff dry in my sack. The ubiquity of these bags is a testament to their usefulness. I remember during my trip to Tanzania—a place where they re-use glass Coke bottles and seem to recycle everything—seeing people re-using the “single use” bags to lug all kinds of things around.

Even assuming the “single use” bags are never re-used in the myriad of ways they can be re-used, what are the chances that people will consistently use that sturdy cotton bag 173 times, the recycled plastic bag 53 times, or the paper bag four times? What are the chances that these bags would withstand the wear and tear of carrying cans and other heavy items from the grocery to reach these lofty goals? If I were a betting man, I would put the over/under on a paper bag at two trips to the grocery store.

And what are the chances that folks will not simply misplace the bags before they hit, say, the 173-use mark? If you go shopping twice a week, that means keeping track and re-washing the bags for nearly two years. Ask yourself—have you ever used an umbrella 173 times before you inadvertently left it somewhere? If so, you are more organized and conscientious than the average bear.

Even if some Longmeadow residents were organized enough, mindful enough, and virtuous enough to re-use their reusable bags to the required levels, what matters is the average. We would need some residents re-using their bags 200, 300, 400 times to offset the more ordinary folk who do not have the discipline and time to devote to this endeavor, folk who might misplace their bags after just 10 trips to the store, or who might spill something disgusting in the bag and deem it a lost cause.

Putting aside the inconvenience to shoppers and the dollars and cents of it, the odds of this bag ban accomplishing its own environmental goals are long. It is an environmental policy that contemplates unerring human behavior and ideal circumstances for it to work, even on its own terms. It is symbolic victory for the environment and a practical defeat.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.