Our Food And Water Is Contaminated With Plastic—Why Hasn't The U.S. Banned Single-Use Plastic Bags?

Our plastic problem is getting out of hand.

September 21, 2017
plastic bag trash
Carlos Ciudad Photos/getty

Plastic has become a ubiquitous problem: it's on our salt, it's in our water, and apparently, it's also in our food. (Read more about why there's such a high chance your sea salt is contaminated with plastic.) 

That's because oceans are riddled with trash—loaded with millions of tiny plastic particles. And the problem is growing. According to the EPA, "Americans generated 33 million tons of plastics in 2014, about 13 percent of the waste stream, and "only 9.5 percent of plastics were recycled in 2013."


(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox. And follow along on Facebook and Instagram.)

The tiny bits of plastic contaminants in our water and food are called microplastics, and there’s a number of ways they can end up in the ocean. Most obviously, microplastics can be the result of plastic trash, like shopping bags and cellophane packaging, fragmenting repeatedly in the environment into microscopic bits, though they also come from washing clothing made from synthetic fibers, and other sources. (Check out these Adidas shoes made from recycled ocean plastic.) 

At this point, we know we need to do something, because it's already directly affecting us. We're literally eating plastic every day. In fact, in this study, the U.S. tested the highest for plastic-contaminated tap water in the world

Find out about the problem in this video, then read more below.

Why aren't we acting on the obvious solution? 

There's an easy first step to solving our plastic nightmare: ditch the plastic shopping bags. 

Whether they're from the convenient store or your grocery store, plastic bags are bad news. Plastic doesn't biodegrade: instead, it breaks down smaller and smaller into microplastics, which we then eat and drink, and which may be having untold effects on our health. Those single-use, throwaway plastics that we use all the time are a danger to our health, and all we really have to do is remember to have a reusable bag with us in order to get rid of that threat for good. 


Trying to reduce your waste? Find out how to compost your food waste in our video below, and learn how this woman fit a year's worth of trash into a mason jar.

In nations all over the world, plastic bag bans or taxes are in place in country-spanning legislation, including Italy, Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, and Taiwan. Kenya was the most recent country to pass a plastic bag law, implementing the world's toughest plastic bag ban: 4 years in jail or $40,000 fine for producing, selling, or using plastic bags. 

Kenya has been a developing nation on the upswing, but even so, a ban on plastics is not an easy weight for it to bear. 

Musa Mungai, a travel guide at Friends Tours and Travel in Nairobi, says while there are positive aspects to the ban, it's cumbersome to many. "The manufacturers of the bags will have no one to sell to since it is banned product, and all the workers who were working in those factories will have to look for new employers," he told Rodale's Organic Life. "I have to buy bread and milk and I'm forced to carry them by hand and put them in the car. Bags are selling between 10 to 150 shillings. That's close to a dollar, and most people earn below a dollar everyday." 

On the positive end, Mungai said, the ban will help a great deal with getting rid of heaps of trash on the streets, and protect the animals who sometimes die from grazing in plastic-strewn trash on the street trying to get to discarded food inside. Additionally, "people are forced to buy reusable trash containers, so new businesses can spring up around selling them." But regardless of its long-term benefits, the immediate economic impact of the ban is difficult. 


So, if Kenya can enact the plastic bag ban across the country, why can't the U.S.?

Right now, 16 states have enacted plastic ban legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though California and Hawaii are the only states with de-facto statewide bans. That being said, we are woefully behind.

We have infinitely more resources than Kenya to handle a small change like this. And we are literally eating plastic, people. 

Related: Can Plastic Bottle Caps Be Recycled? The Answer May Surprise You.

Some U.S. states are actually making it illegal to ban plastic bags

In recent years, Michigan, Idaho, Arizona, and Missouri have all legislated to prohibit local governments from banning, regulating or imposing fees on the use of plastic bags. The argument behind this incomprehensible move? So businesses don't have to deal with regulations. Seriously. 

“With many of our members owning and operating locations across the state, preventing a patchwork approach of additional regulations is imperative to avoid added complexities as it related to day-to-day business operations,” said Robert O’Meara, the vice president of government affairs, for the Michigan Restaurant Association said in a statement

In The U.S., cities with plastic bag bans include places like Austin, TX, Cambridge, MA, Chicago, IL, Los Angeles and San Francisco in CA, and Seattle, WA, and more continue to join on a city-level. 

Cities with plastic bag fees in place include Boulder, Colorado, Brownsville, Texas, Montgomery County, Md., New York, N.Y., Portland, Maine, among others—and the fees are effective. Wired reports that in San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags winding up in the city’s storm drains, and that fees have a smaller, but still significant, effect. Washington, DC’s government estimates that its 5-cent bag tax has led to a 60 percent reduction in the number of bags used. 

In the meantime, there's not a federal law in sight. 

Related: Scientists Invent Biodegradable “Plastic” Wrap Made From Plants And Clove Essential Oil

What you can do

You can keep up with state-by-state plastic bag legislation at the National Council Of State Legislatures, and learn about efforts to implement plastic bag laws here

Contact your representatives in Congress and tell them you support bans and fees on plastic bags. If you've never made a call to your representatives or senators, the Natural Resources Defense Council can walk you through it here, or check out Countable for an update on the laws currently under consideration by lawmakers, along with help contacting them.

And remember that you don't have to wait for a law to reduce your use of plastics!

Make your own resolution to stop using plastic shopping bags at the store altogether (Here are a few tote bags that may be a good substitute). Decline plastic-ware when you order takeout food, and opt for bringing along a fork, butter knife, and spoon. Buy some glass containers for your meal prepping. (Here are the 11 best glass food containers for your meals.) And recycle the plastics you do use. 

Avoid buying clothes made from synthetic fibers as much as possible, and opt for natural fiber clothes, such as those made from cotton, wool, hemp, and linen instead. Even if you're not making new purchases of clothing made out of synthetic fibers, simply wearing and washing them is harmful: synthetic fibers from fleece, polyester, and acrylic clothing are discharged into the water supply at a rate of around 1 million tons per year just from doing the laundry.