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The Green Issue

Going cold turkey with a plastic bag ban

Worldwide we go through a billion a year, but Massachusetts may soon impose limits. What would people use instead?


IN NOVEMBER, along with polystyrene foam food containers, the town of Brookline banned disposable plastic bags. They are a petroleum product, and because they’re so lightweight, many millions of discarded bags wind up as litter and are blown into drains, rivers, and oceans, where they foul public works, leach chemicals, and harm wildlife. Other nearby communities either have or are considering a ban. And Representative Denise Provost of Somerville has introduced legislation to “reduce plastic bag use through regulations and incentives” statewide. (Here’s an incentive: A ban on plastic bags and a 20-cent fee on paper bags imposed by Aspen, Colorado, a town one-hundredth the size of Boston, netted more than $44,000 for public coffers in its first 17 months.) If the bill were to pass, Massachusetts would be the first state to enact such restrictions, though other cities in the United States and elsewhere and even entire countries have imposed limits and bans.

So, what would people use instead? Grocery stores in Brookline still give out free paper bags, which are in many respects like paper cups — certainly not carbon-free but made from a renewable resource and easily recycled. Sure, many reusable bags contain plastics, and transporting them — sometimes from overseas manufacturers — increases their carbon footprint, but on the upside, they are often kept for several years rather than used for 20 minutes, as disposable bags often are.


Some environmentalists contend that banning plastic bags is not the solution, but that creating cheap biodegradable alternatives — and getting them into stores — is. The Cambridge-based company Metabolix is one that’s working on the problem: Its plastic bags can be composted. “The bags we make now are strong bags, and I believe [our] competitors also make strong bags,” says spokeswoman Lynne Brum. “There’s quite a bit coming into the public domain.”

1 trillion

Number of plastic bags used annually worldwide



Number of years scientists estimate plastic bags last in the environment


Portion of plastic bags recycled today in the United States

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