OPINION | Banning plastic bags raises more issues than it erases

UCCS students have probably noticed during recent shopping trips that the plastic bags provided by retailers now cost an additional 10-cent fee, or are no longer available to use at all. This is in response to a new Colorado law concerning the management of plastic products. 

The law, which will ban retail establishments from providing single-use plastic bags to customers starting January 2024, is pushing more and more people to seek out alternative bagging options.  

For some students this has meant keeping a few reusable tote bags in the trunk of their car, but for others — especially those who walk or take public transportation — it has meant shifting the way they plan their shopping trips entirely.  

Going on spontaneous trips to King Soopers after class ends becomes an issue when students have no reliable way to carry their groceries home — a consideration that feels inconsequential and inane but is ultimately an essential part of the shopping process. 

In general, I try to be open to learning about and partaking in movements surrounding sustainability. However, in considering the ineffectiveness of plastic bags ban in states like California and New York, I was surprised to find out that Colorado was taking a similar stance. 

Although banning plastic bags is meant to offset the negative consequences single-use plastics can have on the environment, it will ultimately push consumers to pursue other environmentally unfriendly options. 

According to an article from NPR, outright banning plastic bags only leads to individuals purchasing plastic bags elsewhere and at a higher rate.  

For those who rely on the plastic bags they get from grocery shopping (whether to pick up dog poop or line trash cans), purchasing disposable bags online can generate up to 120% more waste, which is counterintuitive to the act of banning them in the first place. 

Even reusable tote bags have a limited effect on the environment. According to an article from the New York Times, “an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production.” 

While some stores offer tote bags made from recycled plastic instead of cotton, the environmental impact of producing these bags can still be costly, as they require a great deal of energy and natural resources to produce. 

Additionally, stores following the plastic bag ban will continue offering paper bags at a 10-cent fee, 40% of which will go toward funding non-specified government programs and “sustainability efforts.” 

While paper products have the benefit of being biodegradable, they are more environmentally costly to produce. They are also far less practical and user-friendly than their plastic competitors. 

According to an article from the Colorado Sun, a plastic bag ban could pose certain social and economic disadvantages to marginalized groups. “Banning plastic bags might seem like a good solution to Colorado’s waste problems, but the effect of a ban could harm a wide variety of individuals and communities” the article reads. 

“This is not to say that foregoing plastic bags in favor of paper or reusable bags is always a burden, but the decision must be made on an individual basis rather than implemented by the government.” 

In general, eliminating individual choice in the name of climate justice is not a good thing, even though protecting the environment is.  

While I disagree with the proposed motives of banning plastic bags in Colorado for “sustainability reasons,” I think that the 10-cent fee adds a beneficial incentive to cut back on the amount of plastic bags we use. However, banning plastic bags takes this incentive to the extreme. 

If Colorado truly wants to be proactive about supporting and promoting sustainability, then banning individuals from accessing necessary resources in the name of spreading “environmental awareness” should not be the approach.  

Plastic bags do pollute the ocean and fill up landfills, but so do all single-use plastics — millions of which will continue being purchased and produced at astronomically high rates every year. Though at least they’ll enter our homes in reusable, environmentally-friendly bags, right? 

While I do appreciate the impact that environmental awareness can have, making individuals fund sustainable efforts instead of the corporations that bring about the need for these efforts in the first place feels like a non-answer to an issue that is far too serious and deadly to be treated with superficial remedies. 

Photo from apartmenttherapy.com