Increasing numbers of communities across the country are banning plastic shopping bags, so it’s not surprising to find a group of environmentally minded citizens calling for Saratoga Springs to follow suit. Their goal — encouraging consumers to use the most environmentally neutral way of transporting what they buy — is admirable, but their method is problematic.
Plastic bags are bad news for a number of reasons. They require a lot of oil to produce — roughly 35 million barrels for the 100 billion that retailers typically distribute each year. Relatively few of them get recycled (despite laws like New York’s, which require stores to provide collection bins); so they either wind up in landfills, taking up valuable space until they decompose (some are biodegradable these days), on the ground as litter, or wrapped around some innocent animal’s neck or in its stomach.
Paper may be a more benign alternative, but far from harmless: Growing and harvesting trees, and making paper, also consumes lots of energy and water. The paper must be bleached, using chemicals that are anything but good for the environment, and recycling it requires more energy than plastic.
Thus it almost seems unfair to focus on plastic bags, when paper ones aren’t much better.
Banning plastic in a city the size of Saratoga Springs would be challenging for a large chain retailer who relies on plastic bags in stores elsewhere. To buy a relatively small quantity of non-plastic bags for a small fraction of your stores would be expensive.
Obviously, the answer is to get more consumers to switch to heavier-duty, reusable bags, such those made out of canvas or recycled plastic. If there were a statewide, or at least regional effort to ban, or perhaps tax, disposable bags, that might be different. But the focus shouldn’t be on just plastic when plastic is not the only culprit.