Local Laws Can Make a Global Impact

The global trend away from plastic bags has been bolstered by the fact that some retailers have been supportive. Some British retailers have backed voluntary bans, and several large chains in Canada and the United States have said they will stop handing out free plastic shopping bags altogether.

In many countries, the plastics industry prefers voluntary measures to control plastic bags through reuse and recycling, and opposes taxes and outright bans. Last year, Ontario and retail and industry groups voluntarily agreed to cut bag use by half over the next five years. The Ontario government noted that, if the voluntary measures are not successful, it will consider more stringent regulatory action.

The global shift in regulations vis-à-vis plastic bags demonstrates that rapid changes in governance practices around the world on environmental issues can take many forms, and can occur at many levels.

Internationally negotiated, top-down approaches may attract a lot of attention but don't always yield tangible results. Environmental initiatives that spring from the ground up and emerge from local concerns can collectively result in a powerful global impact, even without an internationally organized treaty or campaign.

evaluating the author's arguments:

In this viewpoint Jennifer Clapp uses the fact that increasing numbers of cities are banning plastic bags as a reason why more should do so. What do you think of this argument? Do you find it convincing? Why or why not?


Governments Should Not Ban Plastic Bags

Juliet S. Samuel

In the following viewpoint Juliet S. Samuel argues that local governments have poor reasons for banning plastic bags. Samuel contends that plastic bags are not as environmentally harmful as people believe. In Samuel's opinion, banning plastic bags will increase the use of paper bags, which discharge more pollutants, take more energy to produce and recycle, and take up more space in landfills than plastic. Furthermore, banning their use unfairly takes away consumer choice when shopping. She urges environmentalists and local policy makers to take a closer look at the long-term effects of banning plastic bags, arguing the bans are unnecessary and will create other environmental problems. Samuel warns the plastic bag ban craze will make consumers less likely to learn about what actually harms the environment and will halt progress on the continuous improvement of plastic bags.

Juliet S. Samuel, "Unsustainable Environmentalism," Harvard Crimson, April 16, 2008. © 2008 The Harvard Crimson, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

"Plastic bags are relatively harmless in environmental terms."

Samuel writes regularly for the Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper of Harvard University.


  1. What percent of the total content of landfills are made up of plastic bags, as reported by the author?
  2. According to the author, how much less energy does it take to produce plastic bags compared with paper bags?
  3. Why does the author think the green, environmentally friendly image that appears on paper bags is misleading?

Last month [March 2008], San Francisco's ban on the polyethylene plastic bag—cheap, convenient and 100 percent recyclable—celebrated its first anniversary (although it has only been in effect since September [2007]). The ban banished the bags from 50 of San Francisco's largest supermarkets and has reportedly reduced usage by five million bags so far. In its place: Government-mandated paper bags, compostable plastic, and reusable canvas sacks.

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