For many Americans, the question is no longer “paper or plastic?” but “do you want to buy a bag?”
Unlike in Europe, the United States has no national plastic bag fee or ban.
However, about 1-in-4 Americans live in one of nine states that have banned (legislative or de facto) single-use plastic bags: California (39.2M), Connecticut (3.6M), Delaware (1M), Hawaii (1.5M, de facto), Maine (1.4M), New York (19.8), Oregon (4.2M), Vermont (0.6M) and Washington (7.7M).
In contrast, the European Parliament banned single-use plastic bags (571-53) in 2019 (effective 2021). That’s 447 million people. The BBC program Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, directed a bright light on the issue of single-use plastics pollution. Attenborough said:
We hoped that Blue Planet II would open people’s eyes to the damage we are doing to the oceans and the creatures that live in them … I’ve been absolutely astonished at the result that program has had. I never imagined quite so many of you would be inspired to want change.
Reminder: plastic bags are a petroleum product.
Estimates of how much oil is used to make plastic bags vary. In 2016, the estimate was 12 million barrels of oil (504 million gallons) just for plastic bags used in the US.
“Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” Those are the words of oceanographer Capt. Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. And, of course, he’s talking about plastic.
In addition to crude oil, petroleum products include liquid petroleum gases, natural gas liquids, and natural gas. About 4% of the oil and gas refined worldwide is used to make bags according to the World Economic Forum (2018).
In 2021, LiveScience reported that globally we produced more than 300 million tons (272 metric tons) of plastic annually. About half of that was for stuff meant to be used once then immediately thrown away.
How did we get here?
German chemist Hans von Pechmann synthesized polyethylene, the most widely used plastic in the world, by accident in 1898. No one figured out how to use it until researchers at Imperial Chemical Industries in Northwich, England rediscovered it by accident on 27 March 1933. “After some convincing by the chemists, ICI … moved toward patents and production.”
Polyethylene comes in two types: high density and low density. Karl Ziegler and Erhard Holzkamp developed high-density polyethylene (HDPE) in 1953. Ziegler received the 1963 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Beginning in the 1960s, Mobil Chemical “pursued an aggressive policy on polyethylene packaging patents and by 1977 was producing its own bags.”
Plastic grocery bags entered the American market in 1979; Kroger and Safeway picked them up in 1982 but most stores still used paper bags.
Mobil (now ExxonMobile) pushed their plastic bag, and within 10 years stores were at the center of a plastic-v-paper controversy. From the LA Times in 1986:
The battle between paper and plastic bags mirrors a larger and more important struggle between paper mills–the nation’s 12th-largest industry in terms of the wholesale value of goods shipped–and the No. 13 plastic and resins industry to become the material of choice for the packaging industry (emphasis added).
… a 1983 study of Los Angeles shoppers conducted by a University of Southern California research team advised that “retailers will have to offer both bags, plastic and paper, to satisfy the majority of their shoppers’ needs.”
… To improve plastic’s fortunes, the industry established a Washington-based trade group of 26 plastic bag producers this spring  called the Plastic Grocery Sack Council.
Italy had already banned plastic bags in 1986 because of litter. Unfortunately, plastic litter finds its way to oceans.
… plastic doesn’t decompose. That means plastic can stick around indefinitely, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Some plastics float once they enter the ocean, though not all do. As the plastic is tossed around, much of it breaks into tiny pieces, called microplastics.
The bans begin
In 2007, San Francisco became the first US city to ban single-use plastic bags. Paris and London followed.
[M]icroplastics now contaminate the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in, and they have been found in the faeces of babies and adults.
Prof Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, told The Guardian that “previous work had shown that microplastics were 10 times higher in the faeces of babies compared with adults and that babies fed with plastic bottles are swallowing millions of microplastic particles a day.”
“The big question is what is happening in our body?” Vethaak said. “Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, such as getting past the blood-brain barrier?” And are these levels sufficiently high to trigger disease? We urgently need to fund further research so we can find out.”
Bags are not the only type of single-use plastic pollution. Other sources include beverage bottles (recyclable), food wrappers, straws, take-out containers and utensils.
What can you do?
Become aware of, and then reduce, your use of disposable plastics. Carry reusable bags to the store. Volunteer to pick up litter in your local community or find a cleanup opportunity.