There's always this big talk about plastic bags, but how much can you compare banning them to other measures?

Bottomline: Is it worth the whole media coverage about this issue, or is it just a pointless factoid to distract from other much more important measures?

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    Can't it be both? It is a fallacy to argue that we shouldn't do X, because Y is a bigger problem. (Although you can argue that Y may deserve more resources for that reason.)
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 23:56
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    I can't see an actual claim here to discuss. There may be (with a probability approaching 1) things said in the media that are nonsense, and other things said in the media that are accurate. Do you have a particular claim for us to investigate?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 23:58
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    @Lagerbaer - the correct answer would take into effect the ACTUAL rate of reusing "reusable" bags (which in actuality seems to be pretty low IIRC); the cost of producing said reusable bags, and other costs. (for example, I re-use my plastic bags for garbage cans. If you force me to go without, I'll have to buy BIGGER, more wasteful/worse for environment trash bags. That factor is pretty large and also missing from simplistic cost/benefit analysis.
    – user5341
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 2:53
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    What is your question here out of:a)Is banning pl. bags beneficial? b)Is it comparable to other measures(what does that even mean)? c)Is the media coverage disproportionate? Please clarify your questions.
    – apoorv020
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 5:36
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    or is it just a pointless factoid to distract from other much more important measures Do not present this as a zero-sum game (if we take one measure we cannot take another). You introduce an unneccesary bias/complication that way.
    – user22865
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 7:50

1 Answer 1


I'm still looking for decent primary sources, but this Guardian article contains some fairly revealing tidbits:

In 2002, Ireland introduced a 15 euro cents tax on each plastic bag – the so-called "plastax" – and within a few months a 90% reduction in the number of bags being used had been recorded. But the scheme has had its critics.

While it was true that the tax led to a dramatic drop in the number of bags being handed out in shops, it also triggered a 400% increase in the number of bin liners and black refuse bags being purchased.

The tax also encouraged an increased reliance on paper bags which, according to a number of life-cycle analysis studies that have compared the environmental performance of various types of bags, require more energy to manufacture and release more greenhouse gases when degrading following their disposal.

And while it is commonly accepted that plastic bags are a genuine blot on the landscape (and seascape), they only represent a tiny fraction of the waste stream by weight or by volume. For example, in the US they account for less than half a percent of domestic refuse.


Goodall says that the various efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags – be it through government legislation or the voluntary efforts (spurred on by high-profile campaigns by the likes of the Daily Mail) by supermarkets to reduce their customers' reliance on such bags – are invariably littered with unintended consequences. As has been seen in Ireland, plastic bag taxes often lead to a rise in the number of bin liners being purchased. "This plastic is much thicker and will prove to be a greater environmental hazard than thin plastic bags," he says.


There are also growing rumbles of concern in San Francisco, which, in 2007, became the first city in the US to introduce a plastic bag ban. An investigation by the San Francisco Weekly earlier this year found that in the period since the ban was introduced there had actually been a slight rise in the number of plastic bags picked up off the city's streets.

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    The environment isn't just about global warming. Waste plastic bags are dangerous to a lot of animal life (particularly marine life). They were also an unsightly mess in hedgerows up and down the country. That's an environmental issue too.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 23:34
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    @TRiG - what does global warming have to do with my answer?
    – user5341
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 17:25
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    Not a lot. Put it down to me being hurried at work. Sorry. It is certainly true, though, that bin-liners are less likely to end up in hedgerows. They end up in landfill, where at least they're contained.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 22:02
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    TriG - is there any real research on this hedgerow problem? Anecdotally, I very rarely see plastic bags just randomly being on a tree or in general in nature, outside some really fscked-up areas of NYC. And there are plenty of ways of disincentivising pollution by plastic bags (hefty fees) that don't at the same time f&*k over people like me who never ever threw out a bag but are severely inconvenienced by their ban.
    – user5341
    Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 1:11
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    I really, really don't care for meaningless factoids, and, not the fault of the answerer, the article makes a number of them. Is the main "problem" cited for plastic bags their overall volume in the waste stream. Is it their longevity and the rate at which they break down? Is it where they tend to wind up and accumulate? Is it any kind of specific toxicity? I don't care what percentage they are of the overall waste stream if that is not the supposed problem with them. Seems like some throwing out of numbers for the sake of throwing out numbers. Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 16:11

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