The movement against single-use plastics has gained massive momentum in the past decade, with countries, states and local governments enacting bans and taxes on the use of disposable plastic bags, eating utensils and straws. While these developments represent successes for the movement, some states in the United States are enacting a different type of ban: bans on banning single-use plastics. Through preemption, these laws remove local regulatory power and are often passed by state legislatures after a local government has instituted a tax on a single-use plastic item. For more than two years, these “ban bans” have been on the books in Michigan, Idaho, Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida. More recently, similar laws took effect in Minnesota, Iowa and Mississippi. All of the states that have adopted such bans so far have Republican-controlled legislatures.

These “ban bans” disregard the countries, states and cities where efforts to move away from single-use plastics have been largely successful. In Ireland, one of the first places to adopt a nationwide bag tax, businesses and consumers adapted quickly and cloth alternatives became nearly ubiquitous within a year. Feargal Quinn, a former Irish senator and the founder of the supermarket chain Superquinn, initially opposed the tax, but in a 2008 interview with The New York Times, he said he now encourages other nations to adopt similar policies. Since Washington, D.C., implemented a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags, their use has declined by 85 percent. Jurisdictions in Canada, China, California, Washington and Massachusetts with similar policies have seen large declines as well. More recently, Chile announced that its ban on the use of plastic bags in coastal cities will be extended nationwide in the coming months, and the Kenyan government instituted a plastic bag ban, spurred to do so by a social media campaign. The effects of these policies will become apparent over the next several years.

This is not to say that these governments did not face initial resistance. In 2008, the American Chemistry Council, an advocate for the plastics industry, spent $1.4 million to defeat the Seattle City Council’s first attempt to regulate disposable plastic and paper bags. A revised proposal was passed in 2011 which allowed for the continued use of paper bags for a minimum of 5 cents each, to be retained by the retailer to cover the cost of providing the bag. Despite successful policies in other states, support for a “ban ban” in Michigan came primarily from retailers and grocers concerned that consumers would not adjust, or that complying to new regulations would prove complicated and costly. The resulting legislation, signed by Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley in 2016, prevents localities from taxing or banning plastic bags and containers, preempting the bag tax that Washtenaw County planned to implement the following year. Idaho state representative Clark Kauffman lauded his state’s plastic-protecting policy in an op-ed as business-friendly, citing the importance of the plastic industry to Idaho’s economy. Retailers and grocers in Laredo, Texas, represented by the Laredo Merchants Association, sued their city, claiming that a state law governing “solid waste management” preempted a local bag ban. In January 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Association’s interpretation, striking down a ban and prompting Austin and other local governments to stop enforcing their single-use plastics regulations.

While legal challenges have stymied efforts to reduce single-use plastics consumption in many states, consumer opposition to plastics has triggered policy changes from companies like Starbucks, American Airlines, Disney, and Ikea. These companies, along with hotel giants Hilton and Hyatt, have announced that they are ditching plastic straws and moving away from single-use plastic products. After testing paper straws in the United Kingdom, McDonald’s announced that it will expand the use of this alternative to some of its American locations. Still, companies have been clear that policies governing plastics must allow them time to transition and implement alternatives. After the Indian state of Maharashtra announced a far-reaching ban on single-use plastics, multinational companies like Amazon and Pepsi, both with significant operations in the state, implored the government to add exemptions and extend deadlines, citing the difficulties and costs—both monetary and environmental—associated with forced, rapid changes to their production processes.

Opponents of bans or fees on single-use plastics have argued that reusable bags are actually worse for the environment. In 2011, the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency released a report comparing the global warming impacts of several types of single-use and reusable grocery bags. The findings lend credence to claims that reusable bags are not a perfect solution: two of the most common reusable bag types, made from non-woven polypropylene and cotton, must be used 11 and 131 times, respectively, to ensure their global warming impacts are less than that of traditional, single-use high density polyethylene grocery bags. If the high density polyethylene bag is reused once at a store or as a trash bin liner, the non-woven polypropylene and cotton bags must be used 14 and 173 times, respectively. Still, the impact on global warming may not be the principal metric that people and governments will want to consider, instead focusing on the unsightly pollution and threat to aquatic life and sewer systems that single-use bags represent.

Better, more widespread recycling is sometimes viewed as the solution to the spread of single-use plastics. This approach depends heavily on two interrelated factors: the development of sufficient, reliable recycling infrastructure; and consumer behavior that supports recycling efforts and rewards companies for changing their practices. Investment in domestic recycling infrastructure is critical, especially given China’s announcement last year that it will no longer accept plastic waste from other countries. Developing the capacity to recycle plastics domestically grows increasingly critical as foreign markets for U.S. plastic waste disappear and become less lucrative. To make domestic recycling more economically viable, consumers may need to take steps to reduce contamination and adapt to new sorting procedures to lower costs for recycling companies. In addition, there will need to be demand for goods made from recycled materials and non-plastic alternatives. Plastics are made from a variety of polymers with different uses and properties, which poses additional challenges to recycling operations. Technological advances in sorting and breaking down these plastics may help overcome these hurdles.

Perhaps, after all, the best way to deal with this type of waste is to reduce it. Countries are scrambling to find new outlets for their discarded plastics, but to little or no avail, and infrastructural changes to increase recycling capacity domestically may not come quickly. Plastics were a revolutionary invention and their versatility means they have become integral to our way of life, but they do not come without a cost.


Author: Clayton Coleman