The proposed ban on single-use plastic bags, which will soon come before the city council, can be a big win for the environment—if the councilors make a small but important tweak.
Single-use plastic shopping bags have a bad name, which they richly deserve. They contribute to unsightly litter; end up in the ocean, where they harm marine life; and contaminate our city’s recycling stream, leading to heavy surcharges from our recycling contractor. Quincy Climate Action Network enthusiastically supports their banning.
We worry, however, that the ordinance to ban them, as currently drafted, would encourage their replacement by single-use paper shopping bags.
Paper does have one big advantage over plastic as a material for single-use shopping bags: it biodegrades, whereas plastic sticks around forever.
But paper has big disadvantages, too. For one thing, manufacturing paper bags uses far more energy, and thus contributes more to our climate crisis, than manufacturing single-use plastic bags. To manufacture paper bags, trees must be grown, then harvested, then trucked to a paper mill, then turned into pulp, and then paper, and then paper bags.
In addition, single-use plastic bags, despite their name, often get reused as trash can liners, reducing the size of their carbon footprint. Paper bags, by contrast, tear easily, and thus they rarely get reused.
Overall, one paper bag generates four times the carbon emissions of one single-use plastic shopping bag, according to a landmark study by the U.K.’s Environment Agency. The study also points out that paper bags are “significantly worse” than single-use plastic bags “for human toxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity due to the effect of paper production.”
So is it paper or plastic? That’s a terrible choice, but luckily, we have a better option: the reusable plastic or cloth shopping bags already being used by many Quincy shoppers.
To encourage the adoption of reusable bags, and thus reap the full benefits of a plastic bag ban, QCAN is urging the city council to add a mandatory charge for paper bags to the language of the ordinance. In so doing, we’d be joining Boston and Cambridge as well as the states of Vermont and Maine, all of which ban single-use plastic bags and require a small charge for paper shopping bags, with proceeds going to the merchant.
Retailers are already coming around. All Big Y stores and all Connecticut Stop and Shop stores are dropping single-use plastic bags and adopting a ten cents per paper bag charge even in the absence of a government mandate. Five or ten cents per bag is hardly a huge financial burden; it’s just enough to give us a friendly nudge on behalf of our endangered planet.
Board Chair, Quincy Climate Action Network