Plastic bags are good! (Kind of)

Updated: Jan 4

Philly residents show support for the ban on plastic bags, which they believe are detrimental to the city.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

October 22nd,

“We have more plastic bags flying all over my neighborhood than birds! All you see in our trees and our parks is more and more trash.”

These are the words of Chariot Morales, an attendee at the open hearing held by the Philadelphia City Council committee on Licenses and Inspection allowing local residents to give their opinions on new legislation that would ban plastic bags in the city. The new law, Bill 190610, would not only prohibit local retail establishments from distributing plastic bags at point of sale, but it would also establish a tax that consumers would have to pay for the provisions of other types of bags. This is the city council’s fourth attempt at banning plastic bags (the others being in 2007, 2009, and 2015) [1], and if this legislation passes, Philadelphia will join over 300 other municipalities to do so [2].

“I am so livid with cleaning of the plastic bags every day,” says Philadelphia resident Aminata Sandra Calhoon. The bill has received overwhelming support from Philadelphia residents, many of whom believe that plastic bags don’t just plague our environment but are also an eye-sore.

The state has outlawed the prohibition or tax on plastic bags for a year while the environmental and economic impacts are studied, however nearby local governments have still passed bans. Notably, West Chester passed a plastic bag ban in July [3].

However, are plastic bags really that bad for the environment? Well, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Ultimately, it really depends on what aspect of the environment you’re trying to save and what you are most passionate about.

If you’re passionate about marine life, then yes, plastic bags are bad for the environment. It’s estimated that about 100,000 marine animals die annually because of ocean litter. The world wildlife fund has found that about 40% of marine animals are affected by plastic and that 56% of dolphins and whales specifically have been recorded ingesting plastic of some kind [4]. As such, it would make sense that cities with greater ocean access might want to ban plastic bags. In fact, if you take a look at the 300+ cities that have banned plastic bags, most of them are located in states that border the ocean [2].

However, if you’re more passionate about resource and energy conservation, then plastic bags might just be the best alternative. Not only do plastic bags require less energy to produce than reusable and paper bags, but they also require less water as well. Using alternatives also lead to greater air and water pollution. California’s plastic bag ban led to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions due to the increase in paper bag production [5]. Plastic bags also take up significantly less space in landfills when they ultimately are disposed of as well. In fact, the UK Environmental Agency found that paper bags need to be reused 3 times to have a lower global warming potential, a number that rises to 131 for cotton bags [6].

In sum, whether plastic bags are bad for the environment really depends on perspective and what is believed to be a more pressing matter for the individual municipality. If marine debris and environmental toxicity are a concern, then plastics bags are harmful. If resource conservation and waste are a concern, then plastic bags are beneficial.

Although the committee on Tuesday were in favor of the bill as long as taxes on other bags were removed, what the Philadelphia City Council does as a whole next is still uncertain. Though many city residents and officials show strong support towards the bill, its inability to get passed in the past only illustrates the council’s inertia in taking such an action.

No matter what happens in the proceedings, you can help reduce plastic bag pollution by reusing plastic bags as much as possible, and making sure they stay off Philly streets.








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