We’ve all seen it: pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of five accumulations of trash floating in the world’s oceans. Located between California and Hawaii, the Great Pacific patch is twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France, according to scientists.
Research estimates that there are more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch — bottles, fishing nets, straws (cue mental images of the sea turtle) and more. That also includes bags.
These plastics can harm both wildlife and humans, especially when they break down into what are called microplastics, which never fully disappear but get into the food chain. The plastic pollution problem is real, and it’s serious.
Many Hoosiers are concerned about plastic bags, in particular. Even though they are just one type of single-use plastic contributing to the plastic pollution problem, several readers submitted questions to the Scrub Hub asking about what they can do with plastic bags. One even went so far as to say, “it seems like the bags are really not environmentally friendly at all.”
That’s why, for this edition of the Scrub Hub, we will be looking at the questions: What’s the solution to stopping use of plastic bags? Can we ban these bags in Indiana?
That’s a particularly timely question, as this year’s legislative session gets underway. Keep reading to find out and learn more about what to do with those bags.
The short answer: Banned from banning bags
Banning plastic bags seems like an obvious solution to reducing use of the single-use material. But in Indiana, that’s not an option — in fact, municipalities are banned from doing so.
Indiana legislators passed a bill in 2016 that prohibited city and county officials across the state from taxing or restricting the use of disposable plastic bags by grocery stores and other retailers. Then-Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law in March of that year.
It was authored by former Rep. Ronald Bacon, R-Evansville, who retired from the House in 2020. Senate sponsor Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said businesses and industry groups oppose regulating bags, according to coverage at that time.
The bill, which was approved with mostly Republican support, came about after the city of Bloomington began considering a ban on plastic bags. But before that could happen, the Legislature intervened and passed this law, which took effect immediately.
Allyson Mitchell, executive director of Circular Indiana, formerly known as the Indiana Recycling Coalition, admits that the ban on the ban is very frustrating. That said, she acknowledges that just a handful of communities banning plastic bags, while a positive, doesn’t have a huge impact.
“Adoption of a behavior change is always going to be more difficult the smaller the scale,” Mitchell said. “The scope of the ban will be tied to the impact and the outcome.”
Instead, it’s the broader message the preemptive ban sends that’s the real problem, she added.
A ban like this has a chilling effect. It tells local Indiana governments and officials not to try anything else like this. The politics in Indiana are such that a local or statewide ban on single-use items is not palatable, Mitchell said.
“Now we have this precedent,” she added, “so it wouldn’t be wise for local governments to try a similar approach on Styrofoam or coffee cups or food containers because it would inadvertently poison the waters for the whole state.”
The long answer: Other possible solutions
Indiana’s ban sets it at one end of the spectrum, when it comes to what states are doing on the plastic bag front. Nearly a dozen states, including California, Connecticut and Washington, as well as a handful of U.S. territories have banned disposable bags or have bans that are set to go into effect in the coming year or two.
Beyond restrictions at the state level, more than 200 counties and municipalities have enacted ordinances that either impose a fee on plastic bags or ban them outright.
Several states, however, such as Florida and Arizona, have taken a similar approach to Indiana: passing laws that prevent local governments from implementing their own bans.
“If you think of it as a spectrum with the most progressive areas that have bans and infrastructure in place and behavior change to support that at one end, then look at Indiana,” Mitchel said. “We are at the lower, opposite end of that spectrum.”
For real change to happen, restrictions must be considered at the larger level. Banning plastic bags at the state or national level “would be very environmentally beneficial and would have an impact,” Mitchell said.
But banning bags is not the only strategy.
While some states don’t have bans, they have fees for using plastic bags as an approach to reduce their use. Several of us have seen it when shopping in another state: an extra 10 cents per bag added to your grocery bill.
That can be a helpful tool in the transition to a full-out ban on plastic bags, Mitchell said, or can serve as a reminder to shoppers to bring their own reusable bag. Still, it is not an effective overall solution and also is not equitable, disproportionately impacting low-income shoppers.
Another way to keep these bags out of our waterways, oceans and environment is to recycle them by taking them to a drop-off point at many big box stores.
Plastic bags don’t do well in generalized recycling facilities, gumming up the machines — we’ve written stories advising you to keep them out of your blue bins. But more facilities equipped to recycle plastic film, like bags, are popping up and being expanded, Mitchell said.
So the infrastructure is improving, and at the right time, because the value of pellets made from plastic film has gone up.
Still, both bag fees and recycling bags puts the onus on individuals, the end-consumer. Mitchell said she would like to see more steps being taken farther up the chain.
Individual retailers could choose to implement policies. A preemptive ban like the one in Indiana does not preclude retailers from no longer offering plastic bags, that’s a corporate decision.
Mitchell said the conversation can go even farther: “We need to back up and think more holistically about the consumptive economy and the way that plastic bags have become the norm.”
It is going to take a large shift in social behaviors, reducing both the demand and supply of the materials.
“The more people can avoid plastic bags, the better,” Mitchell said.
If you have more questions about plastic pollution, or any other questions, let us know! You can ask us by submitting a question through our Google form below.
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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.