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plastic bag blows in the wind Plastic bag blows in the wind. (istockphoto.com)

Bag-Ban Debate

Communities consider banning plastic bags or charging for them

By Jennifer Dignan | April 14 , 2009

Helping your mom unload groceries from the car, you look down at the plastic bags in your hands. Chances are, it's not the bags that interest you—it's what's inside them.

But you might want to give those bags some thought after all.

Plastic bags are harmful to the environment, and cities and states across the United States are considering placing fees on them or banning them.

One U.S. city, San Francisco, already bans plastic bags in grocery stores. Los Angeles's ban on plastic bags will go into effect in 2010.

New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, are also considering bans or fees on plastic bags. So are the states of Colorado, Hawaii, and Maine.

Problems with Plastic

"The average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year," says Eric A. Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. The total number of plastic bags used in the United States per year is between 70 billion and 100 billion.

Plastic bags are made from petroleum products. It takes about 12 million barrels of oil to make the plastic bags used in the U.S. each year.

Shipping the bags to stores across the country contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Most plastic bags eventually end up in a landfill, where they can remain for as long as 1,000 years. But first, or instead, many plastic bags become litter.

As Goldstein puts it, "They're hanging from trees, and littering our beaches." Plastic bags are a major source of ocean pollution as well.

Plastic bags are recyclable, but only about 5 percent of them are recycled. To encourage more recycling, some cities and states are passing laws requiring stores to provide recycling bins for plastic bags.

Bad Ban?

Not everyone supports plastic-bag bans or fees. Some argue those measures place an unfair burden on shoppers. Others say that banning plastic bags or charging for them creates hassles for store owners.

Another major argument against banning or charging for plastic bags is that doing so would increase the use of paper bags. In some ways, paper bags are as bad or worse a threat to the environment than plastic bags.

Unlike plastic bags, paper bags are biodegradable. However, in order to biodegrade, they must be exposed to air—which does not happen in landfills.

Producing paper bags requires cutting down millions of trees. Paper bag production also requires large amounts of water and pollutes the environment.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag)

If neither paper nor plastic bags are eco-friendly choices, what is a shopper to do? One option is to use biodegradable plastic bags. However, it is not clear that these bags are much better for the environment than regular plastic bags.

The production of some biodegradable bags still requires petroleum products.

And due to a more complex manufacturing process, making biodegradable bags can result in even more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of regular plastic bags.

So what's left?

The Worldwatch Institute is an independent environmental research organization. According to its Web site, "the best alternative [to plastic bags] is to carry and reuse your own durable cloth bags."

Inexpensive, reusable bags are available at many stores. You can even buy reusable bags that fold up to the size of a wallet—easy for stashing in a purse or backpack, or even in a back pocket.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

Read today’s story and answer the following question.

blog it Do you think plastic bag bans or fees are a good idea? Would you support one in your town?

Tell us what you think on the Scholastic News Online Blog!

COMING SOON

Results of the 2009 Kids Environmental Report Card are due out this week! Stay tuned to Scholastic News Online for the details.

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