NATURE by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

You know how when you enter the grocery store, there’s a receptacle where you can recycle your plastic shopping bags? I always see it and think, “That’s a good idea. I should bring mine.” I’ve actually succeeded in this mission only once, though: partially because I forget, partially because I try to use my own shopping bags as much as possible, and partially because any plastic bags I bring home end up being repurposed for trash disposal.

When I first began reading about municipal bans on single use plastic shopping bags, I shrugged. It didn’t seem like it would be successful. People are reluctant to give up their conveniences, and getting into the habit of always having a shopping bag with you is a lifestyle shift. Paper bags create waste too (and kill trees), so relying on those isn’t a sound alternative.

But then I started reading about plastic bag bans actually going into effect… and not just in places like Europe, China, and California, but major cities like New York, Los Angeles, DC, and Chicago,… and small towns too. Right here in Massachusetts, there are 64 cities and towns with restrictions on single use plastics bags. Plymouth banned them in February 2017, and Duxbury’s ban went into effect this past January. Boston’s ban begins at the end of the year. It was time for me to start paying attention. So I did some research. Here’s what I learned.

How Many Bags?

Every year, Americans discard 100 billion single use plastic bags. According to a survey in 2012 by the Mass Food Association, a grocery industry group, the average market in Massachusetts dispensed 2,682,643 plastic bags, or 51,000 per week. The typical amount of time each bag is in use is just 12 minutes. No more than 14% are recycled. These bags are our third largest source of litter, behind cigarette butts and bottle caps.

Where Do They Go Next?

What happens to these bags when we’ve discarded them? They don’t just disappear. Plastic can be recycled, but it doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, over time, it breaks down into increasingly smaller fragments, eventually becoming particles of microplastic that can do grievous harm to animals, the oceans, and our environment in general. That’s why bans on single use plastic bags are important.

Why Are Plastic Bags A Problem?

  • From the start, single use plastic bags are harmful to the environment. The oil or gas required to produce them, and the greenhouses gases released during production, simply do not justify their very short lifespan. We’re depleting non-renewable resources in order to make bags that continue to do harm in their afterlife.
  • It takes 200+ years for a single use plastic bag deposited in a landfill to decompose. During this time it releases methane gas and carbon dioxide. If incinerated instead, it releases, toxic fine particles into the air.
  • In the oceans, where many of these bags ultimately end up, tiny fragments of plastic are consumed inadvertently by fish and other sea animals. These toxins move up the food chain, eventually appearing — too small for us to see or taste them — in the fish we eat.
  • Have you heard about the colossal gyres of plastic trash floating in our oceans? One, off the coast of California, is estimated to be 1-2 times the size of Texas! To date, there is no effective way to clean these up. Which unfortunately means that sea animals are dying off in great numbers – about 100,000 dolphins, seals, turtles, porpoises and whales per year – plus another 2 million birds – all from ingesting, or becoming entangled in, single-use plastic bags.

What Kinds of Bags Get Banned?

Single use plastic shopping bag bans are becoming increasingly popular because they significantly decrease plastic waste while encouraging the use of more sustainable (often cloth) shopping bags. These bans don’t prohibit heavier plastic bags, nor the ones used as barrier for fresh meat, nor those used for produce, newspapers or dry cleaning. The only bags banned are the thin single use plastic disposable type most commonly found at grocery store checkouts. Recyclable paper bags remain available at no cost to the consumer, plus many stores sell inexpensive reusable shopping bags.

How Does The Ban Work?

Some plastic shopping bag bans apply only to stores larger than 3,000 square feet, or stores with more than one location in a town. Others, like Marshfield’s affect all stores. When enacted by the town and approved by the state Attorney General, these bans allow stores 6 months to deplete their plastic bag stock, plus they can apply for an additional 6-month grace period.

How Can I Help?

  • If you live in Marshfield, support the single use plastic bag ban, which is on the warrant for the April 23rd Town Meeting. The Board of Health, who is the enforcing agent, has given its unanimous approval. Jeanne Ryer, a spokesperson for Marshfield’s Plastic Bag Reduction Group said, “If you believe that personal freedom comes along with personal responsibility to care for our community and environment, that the two are inseparable, then you have a choice to make. We hope that once you understand the degree of the problem that exists, you will support this ban.”
  • If you live in a town that does not presently ban these bags, you can still choose not to use them personally. You might also advocate for a ban in your own town.

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit