One of the public policy fads around the country (the world?) is the banning or taxing of “single-use” plastic bags. Talk of the fad coming to my community inspired me to start a Facebook thread on the topic. I’m reproducing most of that thread here (with names except mine removed) to preserve the points made therein. At the end of this post, I’ll summarize what I learned from the conversation.

Can we talk about plastic bags? Or more directly, the virtue-signaling proposal to ban single-use plastic bags in Yarmouth? At the recent Candidates’ Night, every candidate for Council expressed a willingness to craft such an ordinance. One gentleman declared it’s a no-brainer. Well, he must be way smarter than I am because I find myself applying my feeble brain cells to the question, yet failing to find a data-driven justification for such a ban in the context of our Town.

Is plastic bag litter a problem in Yarmouth? I’m a runner and I log lots of miles in Yarmouth. Lately I’ve been scanning the landscape for plastic bag litter. I run past gullies and fence lines, wind catches, places where I am expecting to see such litter, if it exists. From Candidates’ Night through today, I have seen exactly zero of the bags. So observation tells me that plastic bag litter might be a scourge elsewhere, but not in Yarmouth.

I’m an optimist. I declare we have a virtuous citizenry who knows how to keep plastic bags from scarring the countryside. We don’t need to further signal our superior virtue by adopting an ordinance to deal with a non-problem. Town staff and our Council have more important things to do.

Having declared victory on the question of litter, we can move on to the thorny matter of recycling machinery getting clogged by plastic bags. Here it’s my turn to offer a no-brainer solution: teach people not to put the bags into the recycling. Reuse them by lining your wastebasket or wrapping up dirty diapers, then throw them in the trash without feeling guilty. Problem solved.

I’m an optimist! Right?


Jo I feel like this [the bag ban proposal] is a “me too” reaction since every other surrounding town and city has done it. It seems ridiculous to me. It’s not a matter of litter for certain. So the issue of recycling comes up, how do the recyclers handle them if they pose such a problem?

Ju I have been in contact with Eco Maine about the plastic bag problem with regard to recycling machinery. They promised improved signage at the dump, but that did not come to pass. Maybe Yarmouth’s own Recycling Committee could improve the signage and increase awareness?? PLEASE stop putting recyclables in plastic bags!! The bags and contents are often just treated as trash by those that run the recycling facility, especially if they are opaque and the contents not readily visible. Folks who think they are recycling might be dismayed to learn that their efforts are negated by putting the items into a non-recyclable plastic bag.

Je Ten or twelve years ago, paper bags were discouraged and plastic was pushed upon us. At the time I thought it was silly because trees are renewable and provide forestry jobs as well. So where are we headed now, back to paper or are we going the cloth route? Cloth bags need continuous washing as the amount of microbes multiply quickly. More washing translates into more waste water. We can’t seem to win, but we’ll feel good about ourselves cuz we’ve done our part. 🙂

Le They are wasteful and bad for the environment and often end up in trees and waterways- probably less of an issue in Yarmouth. Portland banned plastic bags a while ago. In is just an environmentally responsible choice.

Jane Getchell Gildart “Probably less of an issue in Yarmouth” is exactly the point. Without solid observational data of a plastic bag litter problem here, it would be strictly an emotional act to ban the bags in Yarmouth. Even in the huge city of Fort Worth, Texas, where they may not adhere to our Yankee values and our anti-littering taboo, single-use plastic bags make up only .12 percent of all litter. Every alternative has its own environmental (or personal health) impact.

Jol The adjective “single-use” is a complete misnomer in our home. We use them for so many things! If they are banned, we will need to buy other products to meet these needs. Those will be “single use” products.

Ni Please factor in the elderly population on this debate, i was told by a Yarmouth resident that she is terrified the ban will happen in yarmouth too as she can’t carry the cloth bags because they are too big, handles too much fabric and she is afraid they will get filled past her carrying capacity

Sh Cloth bags are too big.

Li We all use way too much plastic. What price convenience? The Earth as a whole is drowning in plastic trash. It is all of our problem and little changes such as this, are baby steps in the right direction. Every little bit helps.

Jen We reuse our plastic bags constantly. I can’t tell you how many ‘reusable’ bags we throw away because the handles rip, something soaks into them and doesn’t wash out, they smell, etc.

Li I have had the same dozen cloth bags for at least ten years. I throw them in the wash maybe once a year and spot clean if necessary. There are lots of durable cloth/fabric options.

Jen good to know there are some good ones out there. But I’m not willing to spend more $$ on them. If meat spills go into the fabric it’s no longer clean (I’m not a bleach user). I’ll keep getting (and reusing) the plastic bags.

Jane Getchell Gildart About those cotton grocery bags: an “Australian study noted, a cotton bag has major environmental impacts of its own. Only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides, the World Wildlife Fund reports. A pound of cotton requires more than 5,000 gallons of water on average, a thirst far greater than that of any vegetable and even most meats. And cotton, unlike paper, is not currently recycled in most places.” – from Wired .com

Li Jane wouldn’t it be great if we used Hemp?

Sa , agreed; the Mast Landing PTC had a bunch of lovely fair trade hemp/recycled poly bags made and sells them for $5/each. While I would prefer 100% hemp, these are a major improvement over the other reusable bags I have seen locally available. The Freeport Community Center also made reusable bags available for free for those who are unable to purchase bags. These bags can be slung over the shoulder comfortably, and certainly don’t need to be filled to capacity, though they are sturdy enough if you choose to load them heavily.

As for the pet waste issue, the Shellfish Committee in Freeport donated compostable bags for Winslow Park. We can and should do better for our environment, and there are other ways of addressing concerns related to the ban. We also need to get styrofoam out of the waste stream entirely. Freeport banned styrofoam in the 90’s; I am consistently surprised to receive styrofoam as part of a take out order (which has no facilities for recycling).

Ultimately, we need to eliminate single use and other short term use products from the waste stream. Sturdy bags that are made of hemp are easily washed with plant-based detergents, Borax, baking soda, white vinegar, and essential oils. Bleach is not necessary.

To those who are resistant to change, please think about the long term effects on our planet, our economy (waste removal and processing is not free, even if the single use bags are “free” at the point of sale), and the health of future generations. This is one of many issues we need to address. Every small step in the right direction helps.

Jo Soo paper? It’s biodegradable

Le Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods no longer use plastic bags

Jane Getchell Gildart After banning single use plastic bags, the city of Austin, Texas found an increase in reusable paper and plastic bags in landfills.

Li It’s not a litter issue. It’s what happens to them even when disposed of “properly.” They are filling our oceans and landfills because they take so long to degrade. Yes, most people use them multiple times, but I reuse my paper bags multiple times, too. And when I can’t reuse them, they will disintegrate without as much harm to the environment and animal population. So yes, even though we can rely on most Yarmouth residents not to throw the plastic bags onto the street, not even the most conscientious person can make them biodegrade faster.

And they now make plastic like bags that can be used for pet waste and garbage that biodegrade much faster. As for weight, you can just ask for them to pack them light at the grocery store.

I’ve always felt they give awards to packers at the store to those who use the MOST plastic bags. For 10 items, I’d get 4 to 6 plastic bags, but if I ask for paper, or have my own cloth ones, they put both half gallons of milk, the orange juice and all of the canned goods into one bag and the next bag is just for the bananas and bread.

Jane Getchell Gildart We don’t have a landfill, so no worries on that score.

Sar If you don’t like plastic bags, bring your own when you shop. It’s a habit you develop!

I have to say that avoiding the use of plastic is imperative to the health of our oceans. Plastic trash heaps the size of Texas in the ocean caught in gyres….

Jane Getchell Gildart From a review of an analysis of the accuracy of claims about ocean pollution from plastic: “Morris and Seasholes reconstructed an elaborate game of statistical telephone to source this figure back to a study funded by the Canadian government that tracked loss of marine animals in Newfoundland as a result of incidental catch and entanglement in fishing gear from 1981 to 1984. Importantly, this three-decade-old study had nothing to do with plastic bags at all…
there’s little evidence that that’s true. As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, told The Times of London, “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. With larger mammals it’s fishing gear that’s the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue.” So said Greenpeace! Who am I to question them?

Jane Getchell Gildart…/show/how-green-is-that-grocery-bag-ban

El At the root, reducing dependency on plastics is intrinsic to reducing our petroleum dependency. So perhaps litter is arguable, perhaps our contribution to ocean waste is debatable, but the manufacturing consumption of petroleum as a non reusable resource is reason enough to consider alternatives.

Jane Getchell Gildart Hmm.. “But what about larger-scale impacts, such as climate change? Where do grocery bags stack up there? A 2011 study from the U.K.’s Environmental Agency attempted to quantify the emissions footprint both of plastic bags and of their substitutes. Holding the typical HDPE grocery bag up as the standard, researchers found that the common reusable non-woven polypropylene bag—the ubiquitous crinkly plastic tote, typically made with oil—had to be used at least 11 times to hold its own against an HDPE grocery bag. Cotton bags had to be used an amazing 131 times to do the same…”

Jane Getchell Gildart “nearly all HDPE bags are produced from natural gas, not oil. Indeed, between 1981 and 2012, on average only 3.2% of polyethylene bags were made from oil. The reason is simple: it is far less expensive to produce ethylene, the feedstock for polyethylene, from natural gas (methane) than from oil.”

Jane Getchell Gildart…/09/01/plastic-bags-are-good-for-you/1

Jane Getchell Gildart See? I truly am the optimist here!

Li I am a true optimist.. because I know, despite the difficulties of implementing change… eventually as a whole we will start making choices that benefit ALL living beings (including the planet). Plastic however you paint it does not degrade… we can do so much better than that.

Li Sorry, but that “article” didn’t load properly and the only thing showing for information was saying bags were only 1% of the litter found. Plastic is NOT good for you. It’s convenient. It’s cheap. But that does’t negate the bad things about it.

Da It hasn’t been discussed here (unless I missed it), but banning point-of-sale styrofoam containers (coffee cups, etc.) is another possible consideration. EcoMaine doesn’t even bother recycling styrofoam. There is no market for it. It’s so light, it isn’t cost effective to ship styrofoam for recycling. They just burn it. Perhaps the topic deserves its own thread as this one is about plastic bags.

Ell Just because it isn’t in your back yard it doesn’t mean it’s not a Brocken for the environment.

Jane Getchell Gildart True, but on balance, given what I have presented here, banning plastic bags in Yarmouth is not going to have any impact on the environment, positive or negative. So it’s entirely symbolic – virtue signaling.

Ell I think every little bit helps. Can’t imagine it wouldn’t help

Jo Blanket regulation based on poor science isn’t going to solve environmental problems. I’m absolutely all for being environmentally conscious but not faux regulating. It’s really not much different of a discussion than the forced switch to ethanol blended gasoline. That was supported by environmental reasons that have all been debunked to show that it was primarily a cash grab by corn producers with poor environmental track records.

Li Jane Getchell Gildart That’s like saying since you can’t solve the whole problem with one thing, then don’t bother doing anything. Every plastic item contributes to the problem even though no single item doesn’t make a huge difference on it’s own. It all adds up. Hey, one cigarette won’t kill you so why not smoke a pack or two?

Can you guarantee that no plastic bags from Yarmouth will end up in the water and kill a turtle or other animal? There are tons of plastic trash from all over the world swirling around in the oceans. And it doesn’t stay in one spot, any more than air pollution hovers over the place producing it. Some is thrown on purpose, some gets blown away accidentally. Some is dumped from trash barges. Will the bags from Yarmouth make a big difference? No, but if more and more towns and cities stop using them, then yes, it will make a difference. Someone has to go first.

Li It’s not poor science. What is not true about plastic not degrading? And what will solve environmental problems besides regulation? Counting on people to do it on their own? When we can’t even get “benevolent mined people” to give up one thing that has been proven to cause the deaths of millions of marine animals?

A) not all plastic is non-biodegradable
B) the impacts of regulation as shown several times here often have unintended negative consequences for the very thing they are trying to protect.
C) the current regulations surrounding plastic bag usage as proposed as “bans” or “pay for usage” do little to affect the positive environmental outcomes you want and are instead knee jerk reactionary measures that accomplish little to nothing besides making people FEEL like they are making a difference. Push for more biodegradable bag options, push for more recyclable options, but don’t kowtow to some contrived reasoning that has more to do with making a quick $ than solving the problem.

Li A) sure, I think I said that already (though it’s isn’t technically plastic, but works similarly) B) what would be the negative outcome of this regulation? C) How is anyone making a quick buck from trying to reduce the amount of plastic bags – the kinds we KNOW don’t ever break down,or when they do can be even worse?

Li Totally agree on the pushing for better options, but that doesn’t conflict with reducing (and eventually removing) this option we know is bad.

Jo The problem is it’s short sighted. Paper bags while biodegradable leave a hefty carbon footprint. Reusable bags really depends on what they are made from, how likely they are to be reused (tricky behavioral change required), or how easily they can be recycled.
The quick buck comes from the bag tax that gets levied to prevent bag usage.
Also, as a chemist by training, there are absolutely biodegradable plastics. Plastics need only meet the criteria of being malleable and can be molded into solid objects.

Li There are plastics that break down, but those small particles don’t go away and can be as bad or worse than the bags. There are also “plastic like” products that actually biodegrade – turn back into a natural substance without causing harm.

I don’t disagree about the carbon footprint of paper bags. There is nothing that we do that doesn’t cause some repercussion, but we can still try to do what has the least bad repercussions.

As for the plastic bag, what is the argument for using them despite the bad that we know about them? And seriously – do they have a better carbon footprint or other detrimental effect to manufacture than paper bags?

Even if you can argue that “just” banning, or limiting plastic bags doesn’t do enough, how is that an argument for supporting their use when we know the damage they do? How much of an inconvenience or detriment to our lives would it be to just not use them? I just don’t see the point in NOT reducing the use of them.

Li Oh, and the bag tax…so don’t use the bags and you pay no tax. Another argument for not using them. The tax (that I’ve never heard of) could pay for the damage done by the production and misuse of them.

Bo Is this a ban, or would it be like other large stores taking the charge 5 cents per bag. I refuse to pay for a plastic bag in these stores. But I do use the bags for a lot of trash, bunny/kitty litter and bring them to the dump. The thing we see in town for bag litter is all the dog poo baggies people leave scattered.
I want to hear every running candidates, every board members reason for total banning and what their research has entailed. Also, what is each individuals solution/replacement and why.

Jane Getchell Gildart I want to thank you all for tolerating me in this little sandbox. I think we have demonstrated that earnest, benevolent-minded people can legitimately see policy matters through diverging filters of fact and philosophy, to the betterment of understanding all around. We all can claim the moniker: Optimist!

Da I almost don’t dare to wade into this, but what the heck… The plastic bag issue is complicated. There are good, science based arguments for and against. On balance, I am more persuaded by the anti-plastic bag science. Primarily: we have too much plastic in the environment, especially waterways and oceans (as a river / coastal community, we should be more sensitive to this), plastic bags are not made from a renewable resource — paper and cotton bags are, and plastic bags are difficult to recycle.

Jane Getchell Gildart  Yes! a Declaration: we have too much plastic in the environment! You’re a scientist, no? Declarations aren’t science.

Da There are many studies showing the danger to human and animal health from plastics and their chemical components, especially when they exist dissolved or as microparticles in water. I hope we can have a civil conversation about this topic without nitpicking each other’s words.

Jane Getchell Gildart Consider me chastened. In the context of single use plastic bags within the town of Yarmouth, which in the consensus of this thread is not out littering the environment, but instead goes to the incinerator in Portland, what is the delivery method by which the chemical components are doing us harm?

Da Do I think banning plastic bags in Yarmouth will, on it’s own, substantially improve the environment? No. Do I think that each of us — each country, each town, each individual — taking better care of the planet will make a sizeable impact? Of course, I do! That’s why the Paris Agreement is so important. One street light converted to LEDs won’t do much, but if all conventional street lights are changed out, the cost savings, energy savings, and environmental impact is huge. All environmental issues (like all politics) are local. Several of the communities in the region have banned plastic bags and/or styrofoam. It adds up. So, to answer your question, a few bags from Yarmouth end up in the waterways, a few more from here and a few more from there and due to the slow degradation of most plastics (and the bioaccumulation effects of some constituent components) we end up with a major environmental problem. As you rightly point out, many (probably most) of Yarmouth’s plastic bags are burned at Ecomaine releasing greenhouse gases into the environment — and that’s not a good thing, either. That does generate electricity, so it’s better than burying them or polluting our waters with them, and getting no benefit at all. But higher CO2 content in the air means more dissolved CO2 in our oceans (acidification) and warmer oceans. None of that is good for the environment, especially for a coastal town. I just think we need to do our small part.

Jane Getchell Gildart Here’s what Ecomaine says about air quality in the context of its operations. I don’t see anything about greenhouse gases. Is that in a different section? There is no perfect solution to waste disposal. But what we do now is a heck of a lot better than what our ancestors used to do. Optimist!

Jane Getchell Gildart I am so sorry to burst people’s bubble, but here is this: ” In 2008, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study of resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas, and recycled-polypropylene tote bags. Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks. Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.…/to-tote-or-note…/498557/

Da Jane Getchell Gildart In regards to EcoMaine… They are a great operation. If you ever get a chance to take a tour, I highly encourage it. I think you maybe meant to post a link to an air quality report from their site? Anyways… Most of what comes out of the stack at EcoMaine is CO2, which is a greenhouse gas. It doesn’t matter if a plastic bag is burned or a paper bag or hunk of some other trash. They all give off CO2 during combustion. In return, we get electricity. If that same trash went to a landfill, it would decay, give off CO2 (and worse, Methane) and we wouldn’t get any electricity from it. So EcoMaine is minimizing the amount of coal or natural gas that needs to be burned to create a similar amount of electricity. ALL GOOD STUFF. However, plastic and other petroleum products put CO2 out into the atmosphere when burned. That CO2 had been locked up, underground, in oil or gas deposits, so it’s contributes to a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Burn a paper bag and you are just releasing the CO2 that was taken in by the tree from which it came — so no net increase in CO2. Good old science.

Jane Getchell Gildart  Somewhere on this thread is a comparison of plastic bags with alternatives, carbon footprint-wise. The alternatives aren’t really better. And in public policy, it’s always about the trade-offs.

Si We moved to Yarmouth 2 years ago from Birmingham, AL – where the “pay for plastic bag” thing doesn’t exist, but I used my own reusable bags all the time, to keep things cold, transporting ice cream in the summer in Alabama, for example. When I came here and found out about the rule in many towns in the area, I asked our local Yarmouth Hannaford about the bag fee, and if we would be adopting it – they said at this location, Hannaford in Yarmouth, they have the largest % of people bringing their own bags – meaning, they use the LEAST amount of plastic bags, versus all of the other locations. Based on that, to me, I don’t see that it’s really needed in town. Most folks are doing it anyway…

Jane Getchell Gildart In sum, we can trust a virtuous citizenry with the freedom to decide what kind of sacks they use to haul around their groceries. Virtuous people don’t need bossing around. If we in Yarmouth weren’t so wonderfully virtuous, my conclusion might be different.

Jes Oh my… There are compostable “plastic” bags. There are tons of options way better than plastic. Don’t get me wrong, I am guilty of using them for cat litter and carying a change of clothes… but eventually, they are done and they end up in the landfill to forever and ever exist under the dirt and never ever go away. So anyone who is anti-plastic bag ban had better not make a peep when we have to build a development over our landfill. As a matter of fact, I suggest you start moving to one of these neighborhoods now.

Jane Getchell Gildart In Yarmouth our trash goes to the waste to energy incinerator, which is sometimes short on waste. Landfill is not an issue here.

Li If we could trust the citizenry to do the right thing, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, nor would there be billions of plastic bags (among other things) choking our oceans.

[End thread]

And isn’t that the take-away? We MUST boss people around because we can’t trust the citizenry to do the right thing.

That assessment does NOT come from an optimist!

To sum up:

The motivation to ban plastic bags in our little town is not about the litter. Not a problem here.

It’s not the landfill. No landfill here.

It’s not the sea life. If we’re not littering, our bags aren’t getting into the sea. And Greenpeace said plastic bags aren’t significant in ocean pollution.

It’s not the oil. Bags are made with natural gas.

It’s not the carbon footprint. Alternative bags have a bigger carbon footprint, and moreover, cotton production is very water intensive.

It’s not health. People who don’t or can’t wash their reusable bags are at risk for harmful bacteria.

So what is the motivation behind banning bags? Li gave it away by stating, “If we could trust the citizenry to do the right thing, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

It’s about bossy-bodies needing control, in place of relying on mutual respect and trust among the townspeople.

Gloomy, eh?



2 thoughts on “Optimist vs. bossy-bodies banning bags

  1. That was a rather biased summary, but it’s your blog, so you have every right to show your bias. 🙂 Could you give a citation to back up your claim about Greenpeace saying that “plastic bags aren’t significant in ocean pollution”? That claim is counter to other statements I’ve seen from Greenpeace. Also, regarding your statement “It’s not the oil. Bags are made with natural gas.” — Both oil and gas are non-renewable fossil fuels, the combustion of which contribute to greenhouse gases and result in climate change.

    It’s a shame that you came away from this long, interesting, civil debate with such a pessimistic conclusion. You characterize those that disagree with your opinion as bossy busy-bodies lacking respect and trust of their neighbors. Perhaps, in all your repeated claims of optimism, you doth protest too much.



  2. Let’s not overlook an essential point: No coercion, no satisfaction. Personal volition does not build community and we can’t have a real community unless everybody is compelled to act as we act.


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