Opinion: Intention good, execution bad

News  /  Editorial


Maybe you’ve been there: having to decide whether to pay the extra 50 cents or instead transfer your groceries into and out of your vehicle one item at a time because you refused to fork over your hard-earned dough for plastic bags.

When the majority of Colorado voters decided in 2021 to support a mandatory 10-cent charge for single-use plastic bags beginning this year (there are some caveats), it seemed like a small sacrifice to make on the way to a cleaner planet for our children and their children. But, as with so many efforts to do right by the environment, the devil’s in the unintended details. And with even stricter plastic bag restrictions expected to go into effect next year, we may see even more harm than good.

An NPR article from 2019 titled “Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage?” took on this issue. Turns out, people reuse those bags for all sorts of things besides carrying groceries. And when they can’t get them for free, they’ll instead turn to less environmentally friendly alternatives — like purchasing (and relegating to landfills) larger trash bags than the grocery bags they once used to line small trash cans and pick up pet waste. 

The plastic problem was particularly acute when it comes to “small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect,” the story reported of states with similar laws. Thirty percent of the plastic saved due to bag bans four years ago come back in the form of thicker trash bags — and bans lead to an increase in the use of paper bags which, many argue, are far worse for the environment because of the demand for large amounts of lumber and water to produce them. In Colorado, plastic bags (along with polystyrene products) will be outlawed next year, in most cases, while recycled paper bags can still be obtained for 10 cents apiece. 

As for those reusable cloth and plastic bags… They stay out of landfills — unlike single-use plastic bags — but the carbon footprint required to produce them is far larger than plastic grocery bags. They need to be used hundreds of times to offset their environmental impact. And if you wash your cloth bags, the impact is even greater.

“We should react to climate change and environmental disasters, but we shouldn’t be reactionary.”

NPR reported the Danish government conducted a study around the time its article was published stating, “[The government study estimated] you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.”

Because of the largely self-made rut we humans have found ourselves in, we’re likely to see many laws introduced and passed going forward that are meant to save the planet. From electrical vehicles to environmentally friendly commercial and residential development to reintroducing extinct species, there will be “solutions” everywhere. But how well thought out are they?

Yes, plastics are a problem. Our landfills and oceans are filled with the stuff. And we should react to climate change and environmental disasters, but we shouldn’t be reactionary. Passing worthless — or worse yet, damaging — policies because they make us feel good will never put us on the path to sustainability and a healthier planet. We should be quick to pull the plug on policies like the bag ban and change direction if “feeling good” is the only positive result. And this law should serve as a warning when it comes to future policies meant to protect the environment. What are the unintended consequences?

As for the best bag solution right now: The Danish study cited by NPR found reusable bags made from polyester or plastics like polypropylene best balance carbon footprint and reusability. And NPR found a bag fee to be better than an outright ban to encourage use of reusable bags because people can still pay the fee if they’re running low on trash bags for the car, rather than resort to larger, more harmful solutions.

We bipeds have made many mistakes when it comes to our planet. Let’s not add heedlessly passing feel-good but otherwise worthless environmental laws to the list.

Sixty35 news magazine’s editorial board is comprised of Publisher Amy Gillentine, Executive Editor Bryan Grossman, Managing Editor Helen Lewis and Copy Editor Mary Jo Meade. 

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