The True Costs of Single-Use Plastic Bags

Olin Jenner, an executive committe member of Sierra Club Maine, beseeched Maine legislators to phase out the use of plastic bags, which waste energy, pollute our environment, damage our oceans, and kill wildlife.
Here is his Jan. 25, 2017, testimony:
"Senator Saviello, Representative Tucker, and members of this committee, on behalf of the more than 18,000 Sierra Club members and supporters in Maine, I appreciate the opportunity to express our support for LD 57, "An Act to Phase Out the Use of Single-use Plastic Shopping Bags."
LD 57 would prohibit retailers from using single-use plastic bags to bag products at the point of retail sale, with some exceptions, starting September 1, 2020. A retailer may provide recyclable paper bags to bag products at the point of sale and must provide reusable bags for purchase by a customer.
The true cost of bagsBecause plastic bags are convenient and appear inexpensive, retailers offer them to their customers for “free.” However, plastic bags cost us a lot more than the price that retailers are currently paying to provide them. The scale of the plastic bag pollution problem is enormous. It is estimated that Americans use approximately 100 billion plastic bags a year, or about 360 bags per year for every man, woman and child in the country. Those 100 billion plastic bags, if tied together, would reach around the Earth’s equator 773 times.

Single-use plastic bags are much more than unsightly eyesores. Their production wastes energy, causes pollution, and poses a serious threat to our oceans and wildlife. Plastic bags easily escape from garbage trucks, landfills, boats, and average consumer’s hands. Carried by the wind, they are found in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, and clogging storm drains, jamming recycling equipment, and floating out to our bays and the ocean. High density polyethylene plastic bags, which are made from non-renewable fossil fuels, take more than 200 years to degrade. As polyethylene breaks down, toxic substances leach into the soil and waterways and enter the food chain.
Cleanup of plastic bags is also costly to taxpayers. California spends an estimated $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, and public agencies spend more than $500 million annually in litter cleanup. 
Impacts of marine debris have been reported for 663 marine wildlife species. For example, researchers have found that 50%-80% of dead sea turtles have ingested plastic, and plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish, are the most commonly found item in sea turtles’ stomachs. In addition to significant harm to wildlife, single-use plastic bags cost our economy. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the 100 billion plastic shopping bags in use each year in the U.S. are made from the estimated equivalent of 439 million gallons of oil, and they cost retailers an estimated $4 billion. 
Because of these very real environmental and economic harms and costs, hundreds of towns and cities across the U.S. and around the world have taken action to ban or put a fee on single-use plastic bags, including Portland, South Portland, Freeport, Kennebunk, Topsham, and York (ban) in Maine.
In 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. (California’s law also required a 10 cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at certain locations).
These programs have proven to be remarkably effective. Washington, DC’s plastic and paper bag fee program, for example, has produced results, including many fewer bags along Anacostia River, 75% people reducing plastic bag use, 85% stores reporting a neutral or positive impact from the fee; and a reduction in litter surrounding stores. In San Jose, CA, one year after the implementation of its bag ordinance, the city reported that storm drain systems are 89% cleaner and streets and creeks are reportedly 60% cleaner. According to the City of San Jose, “all of the key indicators monitored by staff show downward trends in presence of single-use plastic bags in street, storm drain, and creek litter, and an upward trend in use of reusable bags by shoppers.”
Sierra Club Maine suggests that LD 57 be made more effective by adding a fee for paper bags (as California’s law requires), with the fee going to a state fund for waste reduction programs. Single-use paper bags, while recyclable, also have harmful environmental impacts. According to a full-lifetime cost analysis by Green Cities California, a single-use paper bag results in more global warming and air pollution and water consumption than plastic bags. 
In summary, a statewide ban on the use single-use of plastic bags is a common-sense action that will help consumers and businesses to reduce unnecessary, expensive, and toxic litter and waste. It sends a clear market signal that so-called “free” plastic and paper bags have quantifiable environmental and economic costs, and it will encourage Mainers to use simple, practical alternatives such as widely-available, affordable, reusable shopping bags.
By approving LD 57, the State of Maine will be taking a meaningful step to making sure that we are not leaving behind a legacy of waste for future generations. We urge this committee to vote “ought to pass”. Thank you.