Plastic Bag Ban: A Tale of Two Cities

Plastic Bag Ban: A Tale of Two Cities

The photo above depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the U.S. every five seconds. Photo by Chris Jordan.

In the war for and against the ubiquitous plastic bag – a symbol of all that is right, and wrong, about America – two cities stand as examples: Seattle, Washington and Swan Quarter, North Carolina.

As a symbol of the mood in America, right or wrong, consider that Americans are the greatest consumers the world has ever seen, and everything they ever lugged home, from the grocery store to the antique barn, was – prior to 2010 – carried in a plastic bag, no matter where they lived.

That isn’t what’s good about the country, though. In fact, this century-old culture of rampant consumerism – what one author has branded as the cult of ‘stuff’ – has cost us the purity of our air, water and soil. Until, that is, corporations began outsourcing the production of stuff to developing nations, which are now mired in the sort of disabling pollution we still enjoy in our poorer communities and less forward-thinking states.

The good part of stuff (and yes, there is a sort of upside to this madness) is that, since the turn of the last century – or at least since the Great Depression – American consumerism has been the ocean that floats developing nations’ boats. And, while it isn’t true that a rising tide lifts all boats (thanks, JFK), it may well be true that if America falls, all the boats will fall with her.

Let’s look first at Swan Quarter, N. Carolina, a city along the Atlantic coast in a state which, in late June of 2009, passed a bag ban, S.L 2009-163.

So sure they have a ban, but darned if bag ban inspectors, working for the state’s Division of Waste Management, didn’t discover that the number of plastic bags littering highways and byways actually increased after the ban was signed into law. More important, retailers don’t report consumers using more cloth or paper bags, but they do report paying dearly for the mandate (which taxes them and not consumers or manufacturers).


In Seattle (and in most of California) where green is a lifestyle and not just an effect of well-watered foliage, ordinance 123775 (which went into effect July1) has made a real impact by:

  • Prohibiting retailers from giving single-use plastic bags (except those 2.25 mil or thicker, which are regarded as ‘reusable’.
  • Allows retailers to give customers (at least 40 percent post consumer) recycled paper or reusable cloth or plastic bags, but also mandates a 5-cent per bag charge and a record of all bag charges on receipts. These are treated as revenue, and subject to sales taxes. Retailers can, however, give customers smaller bags for free if they wish.
  • Charges $250 for each violation

There are exemptions, of course, like plastic bags for damp vegetables and fruits, or for takeout food, and no charge for those using food stamps or vouchers. Also exempt are lawn and leaf bags, dry-cleaning bags, newspaper bags, and household garbage bags.

In Seattle, using a plastic bag is like spanking a baby; the best people simply don’t do it, and they frown at those who do. Seattle’s got its green in hand. Now if they could only do something about the fog!

Even if you don’t live in Seattle, there are things you can do to spread the green, which is a very earth-friendly color. Buy some cloth produce and grain bags, some recyclable dry-cleaning bags, and a supply of eminently washable cotton lunch bags. Also check out Green Home’s line of compostable trash bags for nearly every occasion.

I probably can’t say that you will be glad you did, since I don’t even know you. I do know that all the dolphins and turtles and kittiwakes and camels and albatrosses and gulls and pelicans and swans and even cows and little children – all of whom have died from plastic bags in one fashion or another – will be glad.


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