Why Maryland Should Regulate the Use of Plastic Bags

Fall 2009
Experience and Other Evidence Essays

Article 2 of 12

Over the weekend I went grocery shopping and bought about fifty dollars worth of food. As I came back to my dorm, placed the food in the refrigerator, and stored the snacks in the kitchen cabinets, what remained on the kitchen floor were ten empty plastic bags. The cashier had placed what I had purchased in five double-bagged parcels. This is not the first time this has happened to me ever since I arrived here in Maryland as an exchange student one month ago. In fact, it seems to happen every time I go grocery shopping. As a result, in one corner of my closet, I have a plastic bag full of other plastic bags, and the bundle just seems to grow larger and larger. At this point, I began to feel that something was seriously wrong; it simply shouldn't be this way. The harm that these excess plastic bags could potentially do to the environment is gravely worrisome. It is especially alarming because people in America seem to have made a habit of using them excessively with little concern for the possible damage they could do to the environment. I believe such an overuse of plastic bags harms the environment enormously, and thus, recommend that the state of Maryland implement the necessary regulations to prevent abuse. 

Excess plastic bags harm the environment unfolds in two major ways. The first is the amount of trash that plastic bags themselves constitute. In the article "Future of Recycling," Jennifer Weeks explains that excessive consumption of plastic bags is contributing to the problem of waste creation:

About 100 billion bags are sold to retailers worldwide every year, and only 1-3 percent are recycled. Plastic bags and films make up about 4.5 percent of the waste in landfills, where they can take centuries to break down. They blow around easily outdoors, where they tangle in tree branches, block drains and choke animals and birds that accidentally ingest them. (Weeks)

As noted, plastic bags are a significant source of waste, of which only a very small percentage is recycled. This means that the rest end up in landfills or anywhere outdoors where it takes ages for them to decompose.

In response to the large amount of waste that plastic bags create, some places have imposed regulations on the way in which people use plastic bags. With these regulations, the consumption of plastic bags has been significantly reduced. One such example can be seen in the case of Ireland. According to a New York Times article by Elisabeth Rosenthal, Ireland's use of plastic bags has decreased by 94 percent since the government adopted legislation in 2002 requiring people to pay 33 cents for a plastic bag (Rosenthal). In the article, Rosenthal explains how the additional money that one must pay in order to use plastic bags has created a disincentive: "Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one's dog" (Rosenthal).

Ireland's case show shows how a single piece of legislation has enabled the country to achieve an unprecedented drop in its people's consumption of plastic bags. Knowing that using plastic bags directly translates into additional costs, the people of Ireland have become more conscious about their use of plastic bags than they were in the past. These subtle behavioral changes have accumulated to make a significant contribution to environmental protection. I believe the people of Maryland can do the same by implementing a similar kind of regulation.

The second, and more significant, way in which the overuse of plastic bags harms the environment is that their ubiquitousness dampens people's desire to reduce other kinds of trash creation. Given the fact that people use plastic bags to fill them up with trash to take out to the dumpster, the excessive availability of such plastic bags is discouraging people from making efforts to reduce trash. Coming from Korea, my personal experience speaks to this point.

In Korea, plastic bags are essentially products. They must be purchased in order to be used. As a result, most people try to make the most out of them. Plastic bags that are used to throw away trash must also be purchased. That is, all trash from households must be thrown away in plastic bags produced by the government for each local area. Throwing out waste in any other kind of bag is considered an illegal practice that one is subject to fines if one is caught. The imposition of such costs has caused many Koreans to reduce their generation of trash so that they can purchase fewer quantities of bags.

The same practice has been going on in Taiwan with the same results. According to an article by Yu-min Change, published in the international journal "Waste Management," Taipei has enforced a "pay-as-you-throw" system since 2000 under which "citizens must pay for and use special trash bags for trash to be collected" (Change). As a result, "the quantity of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in Taiwan has dropped from 8.35 million tons in 2000 to 7.51 million tons in 2005" (Change).

As seen in the cases of both Korea, and Taiwan, regulations imposing extra costs on the use of plastic bags have effectively influenced people to reduce the amount of trash they produce in an effort to use a fewer number of plastic bags. Conversely, the absence of such regulations, in places like Maryland, contributes to levels of waste creation that are far higher In this way, the excessive availability of plastic bags is negatively effecting the environment, and thus, I call on the state of Maryland to implement the measures necessary to regulate the use of them.

The current way that plastic bags are being used is slowly destroying our environment in two major ways; directly, by becoming waste themselves, and indirectly, by removing the incentive to reduce all trash in general. As a solution, I call for Maryland to institute regulations, like those in Ireland, Korea, and Taiwan, that impose extra costs on the use of plastic bags. This legislation will benefit our environment by curbing the excessive and thoughtless use of plastic bags currently occurring in America. Given the potential environmental benefits that these regulated behavioral changes can bring about, I believe that it is imperative such changes to the law are made in the near future.

 

Change, Yu-Min, et al. "Change in MSW characteristics under recent management strategies in Taiwan." Waste Management 28.12 (2008): 2443-2455. 1 Mar.2009. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=Article.

Cooper, Mary H. "The Economics of Recycling." CQ Researcher 8.12 (1998): 265-288. 1 Mar. 2009. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1998032700.

Lee, Jennifer. "Taxing Plastic Bags, from Pennies Here to Millions There." New York Times 2 Feb. 2009. 1 Mar. 2009. http://www.cityroom/blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/0 2/taxing-plastic-bags-from-pennies-here-to-millions-there/?scp=2&sq=taxing%20pla stic%20bags&st=cse.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags." New York Times 2 Feb. 2008. 1 Mar. 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/02/world/europe/02bag s.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=ireland%20plastic%20bags&st=cse&scp=1.

Weeks, Jennifer. "Future of Recycling" CQ Researcher 17.44 (2007): 1033-1060. 1 Mar. 2009. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2007121400.