New Yorkers, get ready: The plastic bags we’ve been using for decades will soon become a relic of the past.

In late March, the state legislature approved a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. In plain English, this means you should say goodbye to your trusty old plastic shopping bags, the ones we use to carry groceries, to take lunch to work, and to wrap and dispose of scraps of leftovers and other garbage.

The problem is that plastic is increasingly being considered harmful to the environment, and there is a growing movement to ban its use and force consumers to use substitutes.

By March 2020, city residents will either have to pay for paper bags or reuse their own bags. Unfortunately, those substitutes are much less convenient, require more resources to make, and may even cause health problems. They will also increase costs and waste energy.

Few Alternatives

Essentially, there are only two alternatives to plastic bags, and both have important disadvantages.

The disadvantages of paper bags are obvious. For one, they are difficult to hold – almost no one can carry more than two at a time – forget about the quantity required for an entire shopping trip. Also, they fall apart in the rain. How would you like to walk to your car or your home carrying paper bags and have your shopping fall through the bottom of one? With your purchases all over the sidewalk, how will you manage to get them home?

Has anyone bothered calculating the number of trees that would have to be cut down if consumers are forced to switch from plastic bags to paper? Of course, shopping could be delivered in cartons, but this would add to the already-high cost.

Moreover, not everyone is able to lift heavy cartons. Among the people in this group are those who are not physically strong, the elderly, and others who suffer from arthritis or related conditions.

Even Worse

The only option remaining is utilizing reusable cloth bags, but those have even worse drawbacks. Consider the problems they caused in the past, as reported by the New York Post.

“A study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and California’s Loma Linda University in 2010 measured bacteria in a sample of reusable bags, finding many containing dangerous ones, such as coliform (found in half the bags) and E. coli (found in 12 percent of bags).

“Pathogens can develop from leaky meat packages as well as unwashed produce. And consumers reported that they rarely wash the bags, according to the study.

“The consequences of such contamination can be serious. After San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007, the number of emergency room visits for bacterial-related diseases increased, according to a study conducted five years later by legal scholars at George Mason University and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Emergency room visits spiked when the ban went into effect,” the study explained. “Relative to other counties, ER admissions increased by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.”

If benefits to the environment is the reason plastic bags will be banned, this too needs to be reconsidered. Reusable bags require far more energy and other resources to make, and they may produce more landfill waste. According to the UK’s Environment Agency, cotton bags would have to be used 131 times before they yield any environmental benefits – something that seems very unlikely.

And paper bags also are not the environmental solution they seem to be. According to the Post, “Plastic bags require 71 percent less energy to produce and use less than 6 percent of the water needed to make paper bags. In addition, paper bags generate nearly five times the amount of solid waste.”

The Plastic Problem

In fact, there is a serious environmental problem regarding plastic: Too often it gets dumped into rivers and oceans. There is an enormous amount of plastic bags, bottles, and related garbage that’s floating on waters and more that has sunk to the ocean bottom. Fish and other life forms consume some of this plastic and become ill; people who eat those fish and other life forms in effect eat plastic, and they too suffer health consequences.

To give just one example, on April 1, USA Today reported that a sperm whale was found dead off Italy; when opened it was found to have 49 pounds of plastic in it. There is no question this a real problem and one that needs to be addressed.

But plastic bags are not causing this problem, and banning them will not offer a solution. A 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Sciences & Technology reported that up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters oceans from just 10 rivers worldwide. Eight of those rivers are in Asia and the other two are in Africa. None is in the US.

Not America’s Fault

A 2015 study in Science magazine estimated that the US contributes less than 1 percent of the plastic litter in the world’s oceans. Of course, that’s one percent too much, but banning plastic bags won’t solve this problem.

A more effective approach would be to attack this problem at the source. How about making fines for those caught polluting our water systems much higher? How about better policing so boats can’t dump tons of plastic refuse into our oceans? And maybe working together with other nations will help keep our environment and waters cleaner.

In banning plastic bags, the legislature’s intentions are admirable. Unfortunately, while this rush to green sounds like it will be very effective, in reality it will do very little to benefit the environment, if anything at all.

The bottom line here: Banning plastic bags is not worth the higher costs, inconvenience, and hardship it will cause to millions of people every day. If the legislature is really concerned about this problem they should look for a solution that will really be constructive.


Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.