Banning Plastic Bags, An Accessibility Conundrum

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My city recently banned plastic bags; as an environmental pledge. It’s an earnest attempt to address pollution because traditional plastic bags are non-biodegradable, which means it takes eons to break these bags down, and even if they are burned or destroyed in other ways, fumes from plastic still leak into the environment at large. On a personal basis, I’ve always used reusable bags, simply because they’re stronger and more reliable than the thin, store plastic bags. However, in this blog, I would like to discuss how the banning of plastic bags has some accessibility issues, and what could be done to rectify some of the shortsighted implementations of this ban.

To begin, let’s address the first big push to ban single-use plastics; with plastic straws, we replaced them with paper ones…for a limited time. The issue with paper straws was the fact that they essentially disintegrated in contact with any liquid within a few seconds, got soggy, and made almost any drink with them unpleasant or undrinkable. A common retort to those who disliked paper straws was “Just drink out of a cup normally or use a metal straw.” I’ll address the problems with both of those suggestions: First in foremost, my late father had a stroke and after his stroke, he had great difficulty holding a cup so a plastic straw enabled him to drink water and his favorite beverage, coffee, without much difficulty. With a paper straw, he never would have been able to drink either of those things because the straw would have melted. Metal straws wouldn’t have worked either due to how metal conducts heat, making drinking coffee unsafe and painful because of how difficult it is for metal to dissipate the heat. Anyone who had a stroke or other mobility issues would struggle to use paper straws; so, while the attempt was made to reduce single-use plastics, it impacted those with disabilities unfairly.

When it comes to paper bags, what I noticed as I shopped after the plastic bag ban, was the removal of the plastic bag racks, paper bags laid flat, and paper bags without any sort of handles in them. On the first point as someone who uses a reusable bag, I often would hang my bag on the rack (as you would a plastic one) so I could put my items in. You cannot hang your bag like you used to in a lot of stores because the rack is gone, making it very difficult to bag your items. The second one is with the paper bags laid flat, it can be a struggle to open them up for use. Third, a lack of handles is a huge problem because if you’re someone without help, a car, or get more items that would fit into your reusable bag, it’s very difficult to hold bags with no handles, especially if you have dexterity issues or are elderly. Paper bags also do not stand up well to getting wet and are prone to tearing.

There are even studies that suggest that banning plastic bags simply makes people purchase smaller heavy-duty bags which can be made of several times more plastic than thin grocery bags. An average person would have to use a reusable plastic bag 131 times to offset the use of a single-use plastic bag. Reusable bags that we use also are not usually biodegradable, made of organic cotton, or even plastic so the environmental issue is still present. Finally, it’s just a fact that big corporations are responsible for most of the plastic pollution. Even if everyone were to recycle, unless those corporations are also held to task, we still have these issues and the layperson will not be able to fix the plastic problem alone.

We only have one world, so it’s imperative that we do our best to take care of it. However, the implementation of banning plastic bags feels hollow, and I’ve already seen elderly people struggle with a mass of paper bags with no handles. The lack of metal bag racks makes reusable bags extremely difficult. It just feels like there wasn’t a lot of thought put into this ban with the practical everyday person in mind.


Ziggy is a Certified Peer Specialist in PA and currently resides in Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Let’s Act committee, a group of peers devoted to raising awareness about mental health care. In his downtime, he enjoys reading novels and watching nature documentaries.

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