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Moving Beyond Plastic Bags

December 05, 2011 By John Wang, Macalester College

Today we present another installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

“Paper or Plastic?” Most of us answer with little hesitation. But for many Americans, this question is becoming obsolete.

Our neighbors in Michigan have drafted ordinances to charge retailers for every plastic bag they distribute. Santa Cruz County, California recently passed a law prohibiting retail venues’ use of plastic bags while imposing a 10-cent fee on paper bags.

As more and more communities (29 as of a recent count) follow suit in a country that goes through 14 million trees, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and approximately 12 billion barrels of oil to produce the 100 billion polyethylene-based bags consumed yearly, Minnesota is late to the game.

The Land of Lakes, which prides itself on environmental forward thinking, is having trouble passing even moderate statewide legislation limiting plastic bags.


With only 1-2% of single-use plastic bags ending up in recycling plants nationwide each year, most bags find their way to our sacred lakes, rivers, and oceans. Greenpeace estimates that at least 267 marine species have been recorded to ingest plastic debris found in their respective ecosystems.

Plastic debris has also been found to absorb harmful pollutants such as DDT and release them back into the waters. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation recently found these chemicals not only survive but also “bio-magnify” in the living tissue of marine organisms. Subsiding in the flesh of birds, mammals and fish, these pollutants easily infiltrate the food chain, placing human populations at risk.

In recent years, a bill has come up in Minnesota’s state capitol imposing a nickel tax on any “disposable carryout bag.” It didn’t get far the last time it was introduced, and with the no-new-taxes crowd controlling Legislature, it’s not likely to get much traction if it comes up again.

While a step in the right direction, such bills (including this one) exempt bags used to package bulk items such as fruit and vegetables, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, or garbage bags.

Moving towards more responsible plastic use begins in our local legislative assemblies but it does not end there.

State and local bills seeking to regulate single-use plastic bag consumption do little to address the larger problem—manufacturers' use of plastics in packaging and distribution. That’s why limiting packing waste will take a national effort, possibly congressional or agency action.

We as Minnesotans have some leverage in this effort, however, with the state home to several major food producers and national retailers who supply a significant portion of what ends up on store shelves. We as consumers must demand that our food processors, grocery, and big-box stores explore greener packaging alternatives.

Regardless of your feelings about retail giant Wal-Mart, the chain is joining forces with a packaging company that aims to use less plastic. If the formula is successful, that should encourage other retailers and food processors to limit their packaging inputs.

Here in Minnesota, many retailers such as Rainbow offer five cent rebates for shoppers who bring a reusable bag. The Twin Cities also has the “It's in the Bag” program, which collects plastic bags from participating grocery stores such as Lunds and brings them to recycling plants.

We need to support these local anti-plastic efforts and set up new ones. Photography professor Teresa VanHatten-Granath from Belmont University, more commonly known as the Green Bag Lady, suggests that community members compile whatever extra fabric they have and to create homemade, shopping bags. These cloth bags can then be given away at different retail locations.

Minnesotans can easily set up similar programs in our neighborhoods.

With increasing regulation and more community-based programming, we are slowly phasing out plastic-bags from our daily lives. The next step is to expand our efforts in scale.

It starts with us fighting a small part of the battle, from carrying our own reusable bags to educating our neighbors on the dangers of plastics to sewing multi-purposed fabric bags for them.

John Wang is a Macalester College junior, majoring in political science and international studies.

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  • Tim Bonham says:

    December 7, 2011 at 1:43 am

    We all want to reduce the use of plastic bags, yet the City of Minneapolis garbage haulers (and many other communities) insist that plastic bags are required for your garbage, and leave the orange nasty notes if you try to others, like recycled paper bags. 

    At the same time the City is moving toward outlawing plastic bags for leaves & lawn clippings.

    Hardly seems consistent.

  • Dan Conner says:

    December 9, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    I hear what you are saying Tim and I agree with what you say, but I assume the city and other private garbage haulers insist on plastic bags for garbage for hygienic and smell reasons.  I sure know that if I were a garbage man I would want customers use garbage bags to reduce the chances of me coming in contact with the garbage.  I don’t think leaves, etc. don’t have as many of those sanitary issues.

  • Teresa VanHatten-Granath says:

    December 30, 2011 at 10:44 pm


    Thank you for including me and Green Bag Lady in your article. Did you know that I am a Minnesota native? I grew up in New Brighton and did my undergrad and the U of MN Twin Cities.

    Would you like a bag? I would be more than happy to send you one! Just let me know.

    You can email me at:


    All the best in 2012—Teresa