The Problem with Disposable Bags


Although today grocery stores have begun to post signs on the cart return asking if you have your reusable bags, there will ultimately be a time when you don’t have them. If you cannot carry everything without a bag, in most cities customers must choose: paper or plastic. It’s not an easy question to answer. In fact, today most people will tell you neither is better, which you probably already knew. At the root of this problem is that we still have disposable bags either for free or at small costs. The economic market has a big role to play in the solution to this problem.

Ireland put a tax on plastic bags and saw a 90% decrease in plastic bag usage and thereby demonstrating the power of taxes. Unfortunately, Seattle decided to ban rather than tax plastic bags. Even compostable plastic bags are been banned. Although the intent maybe to encourage reusable bags, why the ban just on plastic and the optional fee on paper? One is not fundamentally better than the other. Leyla Acaroglu, a product designer, did a really interesting TED Talk about this precise thing. She mentions eco-materials, life cycles, and biodegradability. She argues that it’s all about perspective. In her view, “the paper is worse because it weighs four to 10 times more than the plastic, and when we actually compare, from a life cycle perspective, a kilo of plastic and a kilo of paper, the paper is far better, but the functionality of a plastic or a paper bag to carry your groceries home is not done with a kilo of each material. It’s done with a very small amount of plastic and quite a lot more paper.” So, Leyla has two pros for plastic and only one for paper. However, plastic bags have serious downsides. They are created out of petroleum and 3.5 million tons are thrown away each year, causing serious wildlife and pollution problems.

We have to rid ourselves of disposable bags, no matter the type. Taxes, just like Ireland is a good option. However, taxes become considerably less effective when exemptions are created, so allowing paper bags effectively lowers the performance of the tax. A step in the right direction would be to tax all disposable bags and nudge people towards reusable bags.


Which neighbor uses the least bags?

Simple nudges, like a weekly email from your local grocery store with a leaderboard for least bags used, can go a long way. With frequent shopper cards, grocery stores have access to information that tells them how many bags each customer has bought. Alternatively, using less than 10 bags a month could mean earn customers small incentives. Starting a “give one take one” program with reusable bags would also encourage reusable bags by giving customers who forget their bags to access to some. People in Montreal are making reusable bags for advertisement! This could be a great option for malls. Small nudges likes these could get us beyond the question of ‘plastic or paper’!


Enough is enough. No more disposable bags!


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