When plastic bags first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, they were not only cheaper, but they were supposed to be better for the environment: Plastic doesn’t require cutting down trees, and it takes less water and energy to manufacture.
But now, as concern over plastic pollution in oceans, rivers and roadways grows, jurisdictions around the country are banning plastic bags or placing a mandatory fee on them. In Maryland, lawmakers are proposing a plastic shopping bag ban, while in neighboring Virginia, there are proposals to implement a five-cent fee.
“It’s a plastic pollution crisis worldwide,” says Martha Ainsworth with the Sierra Club in Prince George’s County. “We really can’t afford to wait another year.”
Since 2012, Ainsworth has organized volunteers to observe shopper bag use outside grocery stores in Maryland. In the latest study in 2019, volunteers observed 32,512 shoppers at 209 stores. In Prince George’s County, almost 9 out of every 10 used disposable plastic bags.
“I’ll tell you what’s disappointing is when you stand an hour in front of a store, and you don’t see any reusable bags,” says Ainsworth. “It’s devastating.”
But there were two grocery chains in the county where shopper behavior was completely different, where nearly everybody either brought their own reusable bag, or used no bag at all.
Lidl and Aldi — two German low-price grocery chains — offer no single-use plastic bags. Paper is available, but each bag costs a few cents. Shifting the cost of bags onto consumers — who can choose to avoid the cost by bringing their own bags — helps the stores keep prices low.
“People who take the bags pay for them, and people who don’t take them don’t pay for them,” says Ainsworth.
Ainsworth and other volunteers observed 1,550 shoppers at 13 Aldi and Lidl stores in Prince George’s County and found fewer than one in 10 shoppers chose disposable bags. Roughly 94% used reusable bags or no bag at all.
The bag policy at Lidl and Aldi is almost exactly what would happen statewide if some Maryland lawmakers get their way. State Delegate Brooke Lierman, a Democrat of Baltimore City, and State Senator Malcolm Augustine, a Democrat of Prince George’s County, are proposing legislation to ban plastic shopping bags and impose a fee on paper bags.
“We’re using these plastics for five minutes, but they are with us for an eternity, and they’re really choking or planet and our waterways,” says Lierman.
Lierman and Augustine say the bag ban and fee would not be an added burden for consumers — after all, consumers were already paying for the bags in the price of groceries.
“It’s a matter of transparency. Any of these carryout bags and things like that, they were never free,” says Augustine.
Current plastic bag policy in Maryland is all over the map: There are a handful of cities that already ban plastic bags, including Takoma Park and Baltimore, while Montgomery County has a mandatory 5 cent fee. This policy hodgepodge may actually help the bag ban pass.
Cailey Locklair is president of the Maryland Retailers Association. Locklair can usually be seen in Annapolis testifying against mandates on businesses — like the styrofoam ban that passed last year.
But not this time.
“Our members have said very clearly that the patchwork we live in is unworkable, that there needs to be one law, and it needs to come from the state level,” says Locklair. She says the varying laws create headaches for business owners who own multiple stores across Maryland jurisdictions.
“You have employees that are moving back and forth between counties, that causes a problem,” says Locklair. “You have to change and recalibrate your systems that print receipts, you have to train folks and it’s confusing to consumers.”
Locklair says if Maryland moves toward a bag ban, which she says she believes “is the path we’re on right now,” then her group and its members will support it.
‘Plastic Bag Sanctuary Counties’ In Virginia?
Laws targeting plastic bags have taken off over the past decade. Ten years ago, Washington, D.C., was one of the first places in the nation to impose a fee on single-use shopping bags in an effort to curb pollution in the Anacostia River. Now, outright bans are catching on: Plastic bags are banned in hundreds of cities and counties as well as eight states.
In Virginia, there are currently no bag laws — local governments don’t have the authority to require a bag fee. But that could change this year, with Democrats in control of both houses of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion.
“I have heard that some counties have chosen to become plastic bag sanctuary counties,” says State Senator Chap Petersen, a Democrat of Fairfax County. “That’s a joke,” he adds. (A reference to Virginia counties that have vowed to ignore new gun laws.)
Petersen has introduced a proposal to impose a 5 cent bag fee in areas within the Chesapeake watershed in an effort to prevent plastic pollution in the water. There is also a bill introduced by State Senator Adam Ebbin, Democrat of Alexandria, to allow jurisdictions to choose whether or not to impose a bag fee.
“I don’t think Virginia is in a position where we’re going to contemplate a ban on bags,” says Ebbin. “We want to change behavior. We want people to start using reusable bags and I think a fee, even a 5 cent fee, can lead to that change in behavior.”
Unintended Consequences Of Banning Plastic
While a ban is more effective than a fee at reducing plastic shopping bag use, bag bans can have unintended consequences.
Rebecca Taylor is a professor at the University of Sydney, in Australia. Last year she released a study of bag bans in California.
“People still need plastic bags for other areas of their life, not just carrying their groceries,” says Taylor.
She found that when plastic shopping bags were banned, sales of small trash bags shot up by 120%. Taylor found that between 12% and 21% of shopping bags were being reused as trash liners before they were banned.
“So when you compare the amount of plastic that is eliminated from banning grocery bags to the amount of plastic that now is increased from people buying more garbage bags, actually about a third of the plastic that was eliminated comes back in the form of garbage bags.”
Another unintended consequence of banning plastic — shoppers use more paper, especially if there is not a required fee on paper.
Taylor says plastic bag bans and fees can both be effective policies to reduce pollution, so long as there is also a fee on paper bags — after all, paper bags have their own environmental problems.
And she says if you’re worried about your own footprint … think about the 3 R’s you may have learned as a kid: reduce, reuse, recycle: Whatever kind of bags you use, try to reduce the number; reuse the ones have; and recycle them when you’re done.