California has taken the lead in banning plastic bags and it seems like everything is going just fine. Plastic bags are not worth the cost once the long-term effects are factored in. Single-use plastic bags end up persisting in oceans—where animals confuse it for food, creating a vicious cycle that pervades the ecosystem.
Criticism against single-use plastic bags has focused on their clogging of recycling machines and polluting of streets, streams, creeks and beaches. Ocean degradation is also often cited, as turtles, whales and other marine animals can be harmed by swallowing the plastic debris.
Despite the good optics of a plastic bag ban, it might not be the most effective way to fix the environment. The problem is the end-goal of the plastic bag ban. Is the ban to stop climate change, or is it to reduce oceanic plastic pollution? If it's to slow and stop climate change, then plastic bags are helpful. Plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than paper bags. The trade-off is plastic bags will persist for longer in the environment and have a larger long-term negative impact.
“People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact,” says David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined the research on the environmental impact of bag use. The reasons for paper’s higher carbon footprint are complex, but can mostly be understood as stemming from the fact that paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags. “Very broadly, carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object,” says Tyler. For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags.