Plastic Bags Are Relatively harmless

The ban on plastic bags was passed in March 2007 in order to stop consumers from making the wrong choice for the environment. But those responsible for the ban didn't seem to quite understand what that meant: "We're not taking away any choices," said Mark Westlund of the San Francisco Environmental Department. Pressed, he switched from denial to paternalism: "We've taken away a choice that is a detrimental choice."

And the trend has spread: At least 10 U.S. cities have considered or passed some form of ban on the innocent polyethylene bag, from Oakland to Boston, Annapolis to Portland. And, in an effort to seem green, government ministers from England to Australia have promised to wage war on plastic. Reportedly, plastic bags clog up landfills and kill fish; they guzzle oil and energy; they decay far slower than other waste and are difficult to recycle. In fact, the bans are a case of style over substance: Plastic bags are relatively harmless in environmental terms, and where they are a problem, the ultimate issue is littering, not bag use.

One problem is that those backing the bans seem to be confused as to the true impact of these flimsy sacks. Alderman Sam Shropshire, sponsor of a bill to ban them in Annapolis, Md., last year (the ban was rejected in November [2007]) compares plastic bag use to DDT: "It's wrong, it's immoral," he says, "They're inundating our environment."

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