No More Plastic Bags

Reusable bags in use. Photograph By Kalman Zabarsky.

Have you noticed the new shopping bags provided on campus and at Boston retailers? The City of Boston passed a Plastic Bag ordinance on December 14, 2018 to reduce litter, protect ocean environments and waterways from pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce solid waste in the waste stream. The bag ban only applies to “checkout bags” with handles, and requires retailers to keep recyclable paper bags, compostable bags, or reusable bags in stock. Retailers must charge at least $0.05 per bag, and this additional fee must be advertised to shoppers.

Plastic shopping bags have become omnipresent across the globe over the past few decades. More than one trillion plastic bags are produced each year, which is a consumption rate of one million plastic bags per minute. Plastic bags show up everywhere in the environment, from the darkest depths of the ocean, to the summit of Mount Everest, to the polar ice caps. So, how did this happen? The creation of the material for plastic bags, polyethylene plastic, was actually an accident at a chemical plant in England in the 1930s. Thirty years later, a Swedish company patented the plastic shopping bag, and the bags were aggressively marketed as superior to reusable and paper bags. In the early 1980s, the bags made their way to the United States, and by the end of the 1980s, plastic bags almost entirely replace paper bags around the world.

In 1997, researchers discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest ocean gyre in the world, where immense amounts of plastic waste have accumulated, threatening marine life. And even when they aren’t in the environment, plastic bags take many years to decompose and break down, generating large amounts of garbage over long periods of time. While the average operating “lifespan” of a plastic bag is 20 minutes of use, they can last in a landfill for up to 1000 years.

Bangladesh was the first country to implement a plastic bag ban in 2002, after they found plastic bags clogging drainage systems during major floods. As of January 1, 2019, disposable plastic shopping bag bans have been implemented in 54 countries, and 32 countries impose a fee on bag use. Countries include Italy, China, Rwanda, Kenya, the Congo, and South Africa. Cities and states have also taken leadership roles in bans and fees, including San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Mexico City, Hawaii, North Carolina, and states in India and Australia.

Boston is joining more than 80 communities in Massachusetts that have banned plastic bags. We can save money and help the environment by bringing reusable bags next time we take a trip to the grocery, drug or convenience store. Need a reusable shopping bag? Try out one of the compact reusable bags made from upcycled plastic, like ChicoBag. Reusable bags have come a long way in being stylish and compact, making them a great way to make a small change in our daily consumption and environmental efforts. Boston University has a goal of being a Zero Waste institution, and the recent plastic bag ban is one tool that can help us get there.