Lies, Myths, and Distortions!

Supporting arguments for bag bans are weak, generalized, emotional, and only take a few minutes of thought to realize they reach an illogical conclusion in banning plastic grocery bags. However, you will hear the same arguments used over and over again. Then, after they are repeated enough, they claim the evidence is factually proven and beyond reproof!
First, consider the following items when confronted with the wild or generalized claims of bag ban proponents:

1. Beware of generalized claims
Virtually all of the arguments you hear are general in nature. They apply to plastic in general, trash in general, or bags in general. This is a very sly trick that is used repeatedly in this argument, because your brain assumes they are talking about the specific topic at hand and you often will not catch the nuance of what they are saying. You will see quotes for numbers of “bags” used by people, but rarely specific numbers for plastic grocery bags. Or arguments about a “great Pacific garbage patch” in the ocean with a higher density of smaller plastic particles, yet no evidence that any of those particles are plastic grocery bags. Or trash on the beaches, or pieces of trash in the waterways, or bags that jam recycling equipment. Yet very few claims (if any) provide specific references to only the grocery-style plastic bags targeted by the bans.

For example, one of the most repeated statistics used at city council meetings are the number of plastic grocery bags used in California. Yet the city council has no jurisdiction over California! They aren't deciding on bags for California, or for the United States, or the entire world, but only for their citizens!
In another example they will claim that plastic bags fill the creeks, catch on trees, and blow around their city, yet when asked to take you out and show you exactly where this is a problem in their city they cannot do it!

2. Ask logical questions first
When a problem is presented, the normal thing to do is to ask logical questions. If plastic grocery bags are in the creeks, then how did they get there and who put them there? If plastic grocery bags are on the side of the road, wouldn't it be reasonable to investigate garbage trucks for littering issues? If plastic particles are found in the ocean, then ask for their composition and how they got there. All logic seems to go out the window with bag bans, and generalized hand waiving about various issues immediately point to the illogical conclusion that only one particular type of plastic bag must be banned from perfectly normal law abiding citizens. How is a person who receives a plastic bag at a store, reuses it as a trash can liner, then properly disposes of it in their garbage can responsible for plastic bags in the creek?

3. Evaluate the statistics and evidence
Bag ban supporters often like to throw out numbers that sound large and impressive are supposed to be shocking. But evaluate the numbers, particularly in relation to the bigger picture. For example, millions of bags sounds like a lot, but how many million other articles are consumed daily? How many tons of garbage are collected every day? And for all of these numbers, what percentage of the general issue is the particular bag that is targeted by this ban?

4. Ask the specific questions: How will a plastic grocery bag ban solve the problem presented, and why are plastic grocery bags singled out?
This question forces the bag ban supporter to justify the illogical conclusion to ban bags. In virtually every case, they are overlooking much larger problem contributors and focusing in on a single limited type of plastic bag without a logical reason. They will state "it is just the beginning", which is almost a more shocking revelation than anything else.

5. Demand results and measurements
For every bag ban proposed, demands should be made to specifically do the following:
a) Determine the exact problem caused by plastic grocery bags
b) Determine how the impact of a plastic grocery bag ban will be measured and tracked
c) Determine a “minimum improvement” required to justify an ongoing plastic bag ban

Here are the typical lies, myths, and distortions that are used by bag ban supporters:

Plastic carryout bags are “single-use” bags, or plastic carryout bags are only used for 12 minutes on average.  Facts: Retail stores purchase plastic carryout bags for a single purpose: to enable shoppers to carry their purchases home. But as with many other items, that does not make it “single-use.”  Everyone knows that these bags can be reused for hundreds of other purposes.[i]  In fact, the irony of targeting grocery bags for a ban is that they are likely the MOST repurposed and reused product that people bring into their home! People use them for everything from trash can liners to disposal of used diapers to containing wet bathing suits after a swim to storing leftover parts.

Plastic Carryout Bags should be banned because few are Recycled.  Fact:  The recycling rate is less than 5% using the State of California statistics for the In-Store Recycling Program[ii] and about 14.1% using statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).[iii]  What bag ban proponents conveniently forget to tell you is that according to a life cycle study by the UK Environment Agency that 76% of all plastic carryout bags are reused and that 40.3% are reused as waste bin liners and to pick up pet litter.  In addition, the study claims that reusing a plastic carryout bag as a trash bag is actually beneficial to the environment because it avoids the manufacture and purchase of another plastic bag. [iv] 

Littered plastic carryout bags are carried by storm water into storm drains, the river, and end up in ocean where they harm marine wildlife.  Fact:  It is widely accepted that 80% of all plastic debris, including plastic carryout bags, comes from land based sources and is conveyed to the ocean via storm drains and rivers.[v]  What bag ban proponents fail to tell you is that communities are already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars installing full or partial capture devices in storm drain catch basins, inlets, and outfalls so that the vast majority of littered bags can be stopped.  These devices will prevent all trash, including plastic bags and plastic debris, harmful to marine wildlife from flowing into creeks and rivers and making its way to the ocean.[vi]  Efforts should be made at stopping, capturing, and collecting ALL litter, not drastic solutions like completely banning a product because a tiny percentage end up in streams.

Plastic bags must be banned because they are littered. Fact: Plastic bags are part of the litter. However, the basic premise of the argument is that EVERYONE should pay because SOME people litter. This is an illogical conclusion. Most of the bag ban arguments revolve around dealing with littered plastic bags. It is a litter problem they are trying to solve. No efforts are made to try to determine the cause of the litter (such as homeless camps, people visiting a beach, or uncovered garbage trucks), but they jump quickly to the conclusion that all plastic grocery bags must be banned. If banning was the solution, then we would need to ban virtually everything, including tires, mattresses, plastic bottles, trash bags, and everything else anyone finds in the creek.

Littered plastic carryout bags blow around easily.  Fact: True; however this very fact also makes plastic bags one of the easiest pieces of litter to capture and collect. Windblown plastic carryout bags have a large surface area and therefore a very high probability that the bag will get caught on a tree, shrub, stick, rock, fence, or other obstacle before it is swept downstream.  In fact, it is virtually impossible for a plastic grocery bag to make it all the way down a creek to the ocean. Therefore, the probability of a windblown plastic carryout bag ever flowing down a creek or riverbed to the ocean is very low.   

Plastic carryout bags kill 100,000 marine animals and a million sea birds every year.  Fact:  This allegation is false.  The claim originated with a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study that concluded between 1981 and 1984 that more than 100,000 marine mammals including birds were killed by discarded fishing nets.  The study did not mention plastic bags.  In fact, both the United Nations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified “derelict fishing gear, including monofilament line, trawl nets, and gill nets” as one of the greatest threats to marine life and sea birds.[vii]  

Plastic bags are a commonly littered item and account for 14.6% percent of wildlife entanglements.  Fact: The statement is misleading. According to the Ocean Conservancy 2010 Report[viii] a total of 336 wildlife animals were found entangled in Marine Debris worldwide in 2010.  Out of 336 only 49  or 14.6% were entangled by plastic bags including 6 amphibians, 19 birds, 11 fish, 6 invertebrates, 6 mammals, and 1 reptile.  The largest cause of entanglement was fishing line with 126 or 37.5% and fishing nets with 82 or 24.4%.  The 49 entanglements out of 336 should be kept in perspective with the half-million birds including protected species that are killed each year by “green energy” wind turbines.[ix]

The Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas and consists of floating plastic debris.  Fact: False. The Pacific Garbage Patch is neither a patch nor a huge mass of plastic debris floating in the ocean.  Angel White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University states that the patch is about one tenth the size of Texas and consists of small bits of plastic that float beneath the surface.[x] Furthermore, the garbage patch consists of small hard plastic pieces, and no plastic bag pieces have been found. In other words, plastic grocery bags have nothing to do with the garbage patch.

Plastic carryout bags are made from oil.  Fact:  False. Domestically manufactured plastic bags are made out of polyethylene. Ethylene is made from ethane which is a waste by-product from refining natural gas[xi] and oil[xii]. Ethane must be removed from the natural gas in order to lower the BTU value of the natural gas to an acceptable level before it is delivered to homes and businesses for fuel.  Ethane burns too hot if allowed to remain in natural gas and if not used to make plastic (ethylene) it will have to be burned off, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.[xiii]  By converting ethane into plastic greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.  “Using the ethane to make plastic does not in any way reduce the amount of fuel available for transportation or power generation or increase our energy imports.”[xiv] The Polyethylene needs to be used and discarded in some manner, and plastic grocery bags is actually a very excellent and useful method of using up the polyethylene by-product.

Plastic carryout bags are responsible for severe flooding in Bangladesh in 1989 and 1998.  Fact: True and False.  The severe flooding that put most of the country underwater was blamed upon plastic carry out bags that had blocked drains and sewers.  A careful examination of the issue will show that other factors are responsible. In many areas of Bangladesh people live in slum like conditions. Trash is deposited in makeshift dumps, along the road and in drainage ditches.  Drainage ditches and canals are filled with trash.  Less than 50% of all waste in urban areas is collected and disposed of in landfills.[xv] Hence, plastic bags were not the cause of flooding but an inadequate infrastructure for trash disposal and flood control.

Plastic carryout bags can plug up storm drains and cause flooding.  Fact: True but rare.  What plastic bag ban proponents do not tell you is that storm drain catch basins are maintained on a regular basis where all trash is removed from catch basins and trash excluder devices and properly disposed of in the landfill. In addition, in the event of heavy rains, flood control personnel are on duty to handle situations that may come up.  And they ignore the major source of storm drain plugging: leaves! We should be banning trees instead of plastic bags to keep storm drains clear!

Californians use 20 Billion Plastic Carryout Bags per year (500 per person).  Fact: No one knows how many plastic carryout bags are used by residents of California per year.  The 20 billion number is derived from the estimated weight of plastic carryout bags in California landfills by dividing the estimated weight by the weight of a single grocery bag.  The weight is corrupted by the inclusion of dry cleaning bags which are heavier than grocery bags.  Also, since the size and weight of plastic carryout bags from different retailers vary, the method used to calculate the number of bags will result in erroneous data. Using this same method of calculating plastic bag quantities from the weight of plastic carryout bags distributed and reported by stores to the State of California under AB 2949/SB 1219 results in only 9 billion[xvi] plastic carryout bags! In addition, common sense should be applied. Is it believable that an average family of 4 uses 2000 plastic grocery bags per year (40 per week)? It is more likely about half that number.

Plastic carryout bags do not decompose in landfills and will last thousands of years.  Fact: True, but what is not mentioned is that nothing much else decomposes in a landfill either.  Modern landfills are tightly compacted to create a low-oxygen environment that inhibits decomposition.  Modern landfills act like vast mummifiers. [xvii]  Because plastic bags do not decompose in landfills means that they do not produce greenhouse gases during the decomposition process like paper bags will. Hence, that is an environmental benefit.

Plastic carryout bags take up space in landfills.  Fact: False.  Plastic carryout bags used as trash bags or to dispose of litter take up less space than traditional plastic garbage bags.  Plastic carryout bags that are empty should have been recycled rather than discarded in the landfill.  Also, paper bags and reusable bags take up more space and landfill volumes that the plastic bags they replace. And as mentioned previously, if the polyethylene is not used for plastic grocery bags it will be used for something else, and still end up in landfills in some form. 

Plastic Grocery Bags are a significant part of litter and money will be saved.   Fact:  Not quite true.  City, county, and state governments spend millions of dollars every year to clean up litter.  What bag ban proponents don’t tell you is that plastic carryout bags make up less than 1% of all litter and will not result in an appreciable reduction in litter and therefore litter cleanup budgets cannot be reduced.   Every dollar spent by jurisdictions to implement a bag ban and every dollar spent by residents to purchase carryout bags is basically wasted, since the amount of litter is not significantly reduced.  In fact, it can be quickly shown that all of the cost to implement and comply with bag bans ends up costing well over $10,000 per plastic bag saved from the litter stream. This money could be used much more efficiently in a broad based litter removal effort rather than trying to ban single items.

Bag bans are good for the environment.  Fact: False. Banning plastic carryout bags results in an increase in paper bags usage from about 5% to 30%.  Paper bags weigh more, cost more to manufacture and transport, are seldom reused, and take up more space in landfills than plastic carryout bags. Furthermore, factors such as extra trips home to pick up reusable bags, or more frequent trips to the store because the consumer does not have enough bags, or the energy to wash reusable bags are never considered.  

People are exposed to higher bacteria levels in the home than are present in reusable bags. [xviii]   Fact: True, but that is not the point.  The point is that bacteria and E. coli in a reusable bag transfers to a packaged food item on the way home, and when the package is opened, the bacteria transfers to your hands and to the food item such that when ingested could make you ill. Most people prepare food items not on the kitchen counter but on a cutting board or plate or pan that has been washed in the dishwasher and sanitized. [xix],[xx]  Reusable bags must be washed and sanitized on a regular basis, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).[xxi] Also, when is it logical to compare sanitation concerns with the worst possible case? One always wants to be as safe as possible around food items.

The people are too stupid to see things our way, so a law is required to restrict them. Fact: Millions of people freely choose to use plastic bags on a daily basis. No one forces anyone to use a plastic bag. Businesses are not forced to offer plastic bags. Bag ban proponents feel that the public has not freely accepted their “the sky is falling” arguments against plastic bags and that everyone should give them up because of the bad few people who litter them, and therefore seek to curtail the rights of individuals and force them to comply to their lifestyle. Plastic grocery bags could disappear tomorrow if they could convince everyone it is needed. But they can’t, so they seek to forcefully regulate the people against their will. This is the basic fact of bag ban laws.

San Jose saw an 89% reduction in plastic bag litter after the bag ban. Fact: Misrepresented. First of all, the areas surveyed were actually different between the survey years. Also, non-plastic grocery bag trash also was reduced by 30% in those survey areas, which was unexplained. Furthermore, they only measured the number of bags cleaned up, NOT the number of bags that remained in the environment after cleanup. Thus it is not a valid measurement of impact to the environment. But in reality, OF COURSE plastic grocery bags were reduced, the city banned 1 million people from getting them! The main question is the cost/benefit analysis. For the millions of dollars in personal costs to the people of San Jose to comply with a bag ban, they could have hired an army of plastic grocery bag collectors whose single job was to go out and pick up only plastic grocery bags every day!

Bag Bans are sweeping across the state, and everyone is getting on board. Fact: Bag bans are being implemented by city officials on their people. City council members are under pressure to look as “green” as other cities around them. Yet the people NEVER GET TO VOTE on this issue. Bag bans are being passed by city council members who “feel” it is the “right” thing to do, or simpley to make a statement, and they ignore the facts or cost to their citizens. Public comments and private conversations with people show a huge percentage of the population (typically about 60%) oppose bag bans and hate them. This is not a popular movement, only a political movement.

Anyone opposing bag bans works for the plastics industry or “big oil,” or hates the environment. Fact: This is completely false. There are multiple citizens groups that oppose bag bans. People in those citizen groups care about the environment, never litter, take and use only the plastic bags they need, and reuse virtually all of the plastic bags they bring home. Online bulletin boards are filled with citizens decrying bag bans. People oppose bag bans because they do not make sense, the cost/benefit analysis does not add up, and it is an example of nanny-state government at its worst.

[i] Van Leeuwen, Anthony, 23 December 2012. “Why Not To Ban Plastic Carry Out Bags”. Page 6. Located at:

[ii] CalRecycle At-Store Recycling Program. “2009 Statewide Recycling Rate for Plastic Carryout Bags”. Available at:

[iii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,, May 2013. “Municipal Solid Waste in The United State 2011 – Facts and Figures”. Page 49. Located at:

[iv] Edwards, Chris and Fry, Jonna Meyhoff. February 2011. “Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006”. United Kingdom Environmental Agency.  Available at:

[v] Plastic Debris Rivers To Sea Website, 18 July 2013. Located at:

[vi] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Approaching Zero Trash”, Available at:

[vii] Macfadyen, Graeme, Huntington, Tim, Cappell, Rod.  FAO and UNEP 2009. “Abandoned, Lost or otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear”

[viii] Ocean Conservancy, 2010 International Coastal Cleanup Report. “Trash Travels: From Our Hands to the Sea, Around the Globe, and Through Time”.  Located at:

[ix] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Mortality, Many Human-Caused Threats Afflict our Bird Populations. Available at:

[xii] Smith, Beth. 16 May 2012. “4 Reasons Why You Should Not Use Reusable Grocery Bags”. ArticlesBase.  Available at:

[xiv] Smith, Beth. 16 May 2012. “4 Reasons Why You Should Not Use Reusable Grocery Bags”. ArticlesBase.  Available at:

[xv] Enayetullah, Iftekhar and Hashmi ,Q. S. I., “Community Based Solid Waste Management Through Public-Private-Community Partnerships: Experience of Waste Concern in Bangladesh”. Presented at 3R Asia Conference, Tokyo Japan, 30 October to 1 November 2006.  Available at:

[xvi] Van Leeuwen, Anthony, 26 April 2013. “Do Californians Really Use 20 Billion Plastic Bags Per Year?”. Located at:

[xvii] Rathje, William and Murphy, Cullen. 1 March 1981. RUBBISH! The Archeology of Garbage, University of Arizona Press.

[xviii] Josephson, K.L., Rubino, J.R., and Pepper, I.L. 18 April 1997. “Characterization and quantification of bacterial pathogens and indicator organisms in household kitchens with and without the use of a disinfectant cleaner” University of Arizona. Available at:

[xix] Hunter, Brooke. 29 August 2012. “Dishing up the Dirt”. Available at:

[xx] Mercier, Lea.  (last updated 2011-07-24). Available at:

[xxi] Gieraltowski, Laura, 24 December 2012. “Reusable Grocery Bags: Keep ‘Em Clean While Going Green”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Located at: