Letter: Arguments Against Plastic Bag Ban in Greenwich Don’t Hold Water

Letter to the editor from Andrew Winston, Old Greenwich, RTM District 12

I am a new RTM member, and next week I will be voting in favor of the plastic bag ban (i.e., the Reusable Checkout Bag Ordinance). It’s not a perfect law, but it’s a very good one. Supporting the ban is the right move for the town and the world.

Briefly, this ordinance will eliminate single-use plastic checkout bags in Greenwich stores. It will also require retailers to (a) provide paper bags that do not come from old growth forests and are 100% recyclable and (b) charge customers a minimum fee of $0.23—paid to the retailer, not the town—for each paper bag used. In short, the bill incentivizes us all to bring our own reusable bags to stores.

This proposed law is nothing new. Countries, states, and cities around the world are rethinking their relationship with short-term-use plastics. Everywhere from the UK, parts of China and India, and Kenya, to California and hundreds of U.S. towns have enacted bans or fees for single-use bags.

And many multinational companies, such as PepsiCo and Unilever, are advocating for innovation and laws that reduce plastic use in packaging and bags.

There is a good reason for all this action. Plastics have many important uses, but they have become a major source of global pollution. Every year, we dump 8 million tons of plastic into the seas (adding to the 5 trillion of pieces of plastic already there). At this rate, plastics will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. The plastics supply chain also requires fossil fuels, uses tremendous amounts of energy, and generates large quantities of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

As the CEO of Unilever wrote recently, “There is an urgent need…to question aspects of the plastics system…do we still want disposable carrier bags, given that they are burned or sent to landfill after a few minutes of use?”

But back to the local level. Let’s address the litany of exaggerated, misleading, or strange arguments being thrown against the ban.

“It’s a tax.” No, it’s not. The fee does not go to the government, but to the store. But more
importantly, you pay nothing if you bring your own bag.

“This is hard on low-income residents.” Not really. The ordinance exempts anyone using food assistance like SNAP or WIC, as well as the organizations that serve these people. Also, you pay nothing if you bring your own bag.

“In Greenwich, we don’t have a plastics litter problem.” This is misleading. Even if we were perfect at sorting and recycling, the plastics problem is more than just bags stuck in trees or mucking up water treatment facilities. In the specific case of carry-out bags, the polluting production system creates a product that is wildly over-engineered for its use—a bag that we use for minutes and then lasts for hundreds of years.

“Reusable bags will make you sick.” This is wrong and just weird. A single study from 2012 falsely linked a bag ban in San Francisco with food-borne illness. The paper was widely debunked because they hadn’t actually connected disease incidence with the people who used reusable bags a lot (in short, they established zero causation). Politifact called the charge “Mostly False”. If you’re concerned, you can clean your bags. But if you cook with meat, you should worry more about the risk of illness from the surfaces and sponges in your kitchen.

“People will shop elsewhere.” This seems wildly overstated and impossible to prove. Why would anyone drive past the stores they’re accustomed to just to avoid the ban? Remember, you pay nothing if you bring your own bag.

“The fee is too high.” I agree with this one. Historically, laws like this have imposed a fee of a nickel or a dime. The amount is intended to be a reminder to the customer, not a revenue generator. But either way, you pay nothing if you bring your own bag.

Putting the myths aside, we should support this ban. Greenwich can join other forward-thinking communities that are reducing the waste, expense, and environmental impact of single-use plastics. The temporary, mild inconvenience of learning to throw some reusable bags in your car is not too much to ask to make Greenwich and the world cleaner.