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  • Writer's pictureArmstrong Williams

Plastic bag bans are supposed to reduce plastic use, but they do the opposite

February 28, 2024 |

Here’s a common scenario you might have encountered: You’re at the grocery store, your cart filled with items, only to discover at the checkout counter that they either charge for bags, or they don’t provide them. Maybe, even, the bags they offer are so flimsy that they’re not even worth using. So, to save money and trouble, you buy a large reusable bag made of non-woven polypropylene, a very thick plastic, much thicker than the traditional plastic bag. Perhaps it has a cute design on it, maybe it’s holiday-themed or has cats or dogs on it. You then go home, unpack your groceries, and throw your new bag in the closet. But then, the next time you go grocery shopping, you realize that you forgot your new bag, and now you have to buy a new one — and the cycle continues.

This is the reality that people face in over 500 cities — including Baltimore — and 12 states across the country, where single-use plastic bags are banned in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives.

But do these laws work? According to one study in New Jersey by Freedonia Custom Research, a business research division for, the answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, the study found that the plastic bag ban didn’t just fail to work, it actually caused plastic consumption to increase nearly threefold.

The Freedonia study looked at the bag ban in New Jersey, which was implemented in 2022. At the time of the law’s implementation, it was considered the strictest in the nation, banning stores from providing not only single-use plastic bags but also paper bags (for certain businesses), along with polystyrene foam food containers and cups. It also restricted the distribution of plastic straws unless requested by a customer. Many residents supported the ban at the start, saying it was good for the environment.

However, almost immediately, the negative impacts of the laws began materializing. Consumers soon began realizing they were forgetting to bring the reusable bags they already bought on their prior trip bags to the grocery store, and those who had their groceries delivered were being forced to pay for the pricier, higher-plastic bags. 

According to Freedonia’s report, while “total bag volumes declined by more than 60% to 894 million bags … [six times] more woven and non-woven polypropylene plastic was consumed to produce the reusable bags sold to consumers as an alternative.”  Such bags are sold at three times what they cost to make, and so many are sold that their sales comprise between 1-2% of total retailer sales in New Jersey.

Single-use plastic bags cost approximately one penny to manufacture, while paper bags cost between 4 and 5 cents. Reusable plastic bags, on the other hand, can cost around 10 and 25 cents to produce, depending on the size of the bag and volume of the purchase, and are meant to be used approximately 100 times before needing to be thrown out. The report found that customers used these polypropylene bags an average of two to three times each and that 15 and 20 times more plastic is used to create each reusable bag than their single-use counterparts.

Polypropylene is a man-made, petroleum-based plastic material that was discovered in 1954. It is not biodegradable,  and the rate of post-consumer recycling of polypropylene worldwide is only about 1%, leading to significant amounts of polypropylene ending up in landfills. In 2021, global landfills received 400 million tons of plastic, 40 million of which, or 10%, came from the U.S. Worldwide, polypropylene accounts for 28% of these plastics, making it a significant contributor to plastic waste. Plastic generally takes approximately 500 to 1,000 years to decompose, even though its useful life is only around 10 years.

In Maryland, roughly a half dozen jurisdictions have implemented plastic bag bans that allow customers to purchase paper bags for a small fee. Baltimore City’s “Comprehensive Bag Reduction Act” went into effect in 2021; Montgomery County’s in 2022, and Baltimore County’s in 2023, along with the town of Easton, on the Eastern Shore. This year, bans in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties joined them.

While the intentions behind single-use plastic bag bans are noble, seeking to minimize the impact associated with plastic bags and encourage the use of sustainable alternatives, they don’t appear to be doing the job, as evidenced by a study of New Jersey’s law. Policymakers around the country are forced to grapple with making sweeping environmental laws whose outcomes are uncertain. These laws, while ambitious in their aims to reduce pollution, often face challenges in practical implementation and effectiveness. As more data becomes available from studies like the one in New Jersey, policymakers must adapt and refine their strategies in pursuit of effective and sustainable environmental protection measures.

Armstrong Williams (; @arightside) is a political analyst, syndicated columnist and owner of the broadcasting company, Howard Stirk Holdings. He is also part owner of The Baltimore Sun. This column is one of two he writes monthly about culture and politics, in addition to his weekly Owner’s Box column. 


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