American shoppers use an estimated 102 billion plastic shopping bags each year — more than 500 per consumer. Named by Guinness World Records as "the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world," the ultrathin bags have become a leading source of pollution worldwide. They litter the world's beaches, clog city sewers, contribute to floods in developing countries and fuel a massive flow of plastic waste that is killing wildlife from sea turtles to camels. "The plastic bag has come to represent the collective sins of the age of plastic," says Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.
Many countries have instituted tough new rules to curb the use of plastic bags. Some, like China, have issued outright bans. Others, including many European nations, have imposed stiff fees to pay for the mess created by all the plastic trash. "There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere," the United Nations Environment Programme recently declared. But in the United States, the plastics industry has launched a concerted campaign to derail and defeat anti-bag measures nationwide. The effort includes well-placed political donations, intensive lobbying at both the state and national levels, and a pervasive PR campaign designed to shift the focus away from plastic bags to the supposed threat of canvas and paper bags — including misleading claims that reusable bags "could" contain bacteria and unsafe levels of lead.
"It's just like Big Tobacco," says Amy Westervelt, founding editor of Plastic Free Times, a website sponsored by the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition. "They're using the same underhanded tactics — and even using the same lobbying firm that Philip Morris started and bankrolled in the Nineties. Their sole aim is to maintain the status quo and protect their profits.