There’s currently much interest, particularly through debates and discussions in the Oregon Legislature, in single-use paper and plastic bags, such as grocery bags, as well as reusable alternatives. This page summarizes DEQ’s understanding of this topic.
Impacts on litter and recycling
Single-use bags contribute to litter. In the case of plastic bags, this litter can cause negative effects on wildlife, particularly in the ocean. Paper litter can also cause negative impacts, although these tend to be shorter-lived as paper bags decompose much faster than plastic bags. While litter comes from many sources, and not all plastics in the ocean come from land-based sources, reducing the use of single-use bags can help reduce negative impacts associated with litter.
Single-use plastic bags also create problems for Oregon recyclers. While plastic bags can be recycled – and are recycled effectively in some cases – they need to be separated from other recyclables. Plastic bags should never be placed in household recycling carts, or otherwise mixed with other recyclables. These mixed or “commingled” recyclables go to sorting plants (called “material recovery facilities” or “MRFs”) to be sorted. While MRFs can sort plastic bottles from paper, plastic bags are difficult to sort and often become entangled in sorting equipment. This causes major equipment and downtime problems and adds to the cost of community recycling programs.
One alternative to single-use bags is to avoid them, either by not using a bag at all (for small purchases), or by reusing bags. Traditional retail bags (both paper and plastic) can be reused. Many consumers prefer more durable bags that are designed to be reused hundreds of times. State policy recognizes “reduce” and “reuse” as preferable to recycling. Reusing bags is typically preferable to single-use bags, particularly if bags are reused a large number of times.
Bag bans and fees
Bag fees are another method of reducing the use of single-use bags. Data from various communities shows that a fee will lead many consumers to reduce their use of new bags. Further, a fee (if equal to the cost of the bag) is fair to all consumers – only those consumers who choose to use new bags pay for them, rather than forcing all consumers (including those who choose to reuse) to pay for new bags embedded in the price of the other products they’re buying at the store.
Oxo-degradable plastic bags
One alternative to conventional plastic (polyethylene) bags are “oxo-degradable” plastics. These are typically conventional plastic blended with an additive that causes the plastic to degrade when exposed to oxygen and/or sunlight. Proponents of these bags claim they reduce problems associated with litter. Based on its most recent review of information, DEQ does not support this technology, at this time, for several reasons. First, it appears that these types of plastics, if placed in landfills, could increase landfill methane emissions as they degrade; methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Second, polyethylene requires significant resources to produce; designing a product to degrade guarantees that those resources are totally and irrevocably wasted after a single use. Third, DEQ has significant concerns that these oxo-degradable plastics, if mixed with other plastics and recycled, could cause the products subsequently made from the recycled plastics to degrade, thereby damaging the viability of plastics recycling. Finally, DEQ has not yet seen convincing evidence that oxo-degradable plastics actually degrade in the marine environment.
Other environmental impacts
Much has been made of competing claims of “greenness” between paper and plastic single-use bags. These claims are sometimes derived through studies called life cycle analyses, or LCAs. LCAs can be a useful way to understand products’ environmental impacts. DEQ has not commissioned its own LCA of grocery bags. It has reviewed several bag LCAs prepared by other organizations (governments and industries). From this review, it is clear that several important variables can significantly affect results. They include:
- The number of plastic bags required to replace one paper bag (or vice versa).
- Consumer behavior regarding reuse of plastic and paper bags (for example, as trash can liners), and how consumers would respond if single-use plastic checkout bags were no longer available.
- Current and future recycling rates, and how the benefits of recycling are accounted for in the analysis.
- How increases or decreases in paper use affect the amount of carbon stored in forests.
Because of uncertainty surrounding these variables, DEQ is not prepared at this time to make a definitive statement regarding other environmental impacts of different kinds of single-use bags.