Ask An Environmentalist: If we're ditching plastic straws, why hasn’t Indiana banned plastic bags?

By now, you’ve probably heard about Allen County Department of Environmental Management’s campaign against plastic straws, encouraging residents to say, “No straw, please,” when ordering drinks and getting restaurants to use sustainable paper straws instead.

But I was recently asked why Indiana hasn’t banned plastic grocery bags, too. It seems like this change would make an even bigger impact on the environment than banning plastic straws, right?

Many people can identify with seeing plastic bags in places they shouldn’t be: hanging from the branches of trees, drifting across natural landscapes, or posing as jelly fish in oceans (and fooling poor sea turtles into eating them). 

After all, bags are larger than straws, consume more resources to make, and seem like a logical item to restrict because we can use re-usable bags if we can remember to take them to the store.

But guess what? There is actually a plastic bag ban BAN in Indiana.  House Bill 1053, authored by Representative Ronald Bacon and signed into law by then Governor Mike Pence in 2016, prohibits local government from regulating or imposing any restriction, prohibition, fee, or tax on plastic bags and other single-use food containers in the state. So there goes that idea.

I wondered why such a ban on banning plastic bags would be put into effect, and I found that Indiana isn’t alone in making this move. In fact, more states have laws like ours (10) than states that have laws banning or limiting the use of plastic bags (six). Weird, right? 

I started looking up bag bans and soon went down a rabbit hole the likes of which I had not expected, so please bear with me here. There is a group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), which lobbies states to pre-emptively ban plastic bag bans.

That’s right. They want states to not ban plastic bags, and their campaign is called “Bag the Ban.” They produce some pretty slick videos and fact sheets, claiming that “The conventional plastic bag is the one with the least environmental impacts.”

Some of these pre-emptive laws are written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that defines itself as being for “limited government, free markets, and federalism” and provides pre-written language for bills that can be used by legislators to easily submit for potential passage into law. 

Something you maybe didn’t know: Indiana is home to the largest plastic bag recycling facility in the world. It is called Hilex Poly, a division of Novolex, and it is in North Vernon, Indiana. They take used bags and other similar types of flexible plastic film and make them into more plastic grocery bags. 

Representatives of Hilex Poly did not return my calls or emails, but I was able to confirm from their website that they are affiliated with APBA and a source close to the issue at the time tells me that they were the largest impetus behind the bag ban ban to keep bags in stores. 

There are videos on YouTube showing how amazing the recycling facilities are at Hilex/Novolex, and there are also videos of people protesting the company for polluting the environment with plastic bags.   So at this point, it is hard to know exactly what to think.

Hilex/Novolex is a source of revenue for the town of North Vernon, employing 220 people and doing more than $35 million dollars in sales. They also recycle plastic to keep it out of landfills and natural areas.

When you look at the stated reasons for banning a ban on plastic bags, as was done here in Indiana, they are related to protecting the corporate interests of bag producers. Bill sponsor Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford says businesses and industry groups oppose regulating bags. However, the promotional material for “Bag the Ban” says that they are opposed to banning bags partly because it would put millions of dollars in the hands of grocers when they impose fees on plastic bags or try to force the purchase of reusable bags.

Why would they want grocers to be denied the right to earn money in favor of bag producers? 

Another reason stated for opposing bag bans is that people would lose jobs if plastic bag manufacturers were shut down. From Novolex’s website, I see that they make many other items. If I’d had a chance to speak with them, I’d have asked if those don’t generate enough revenue to keep the business afloat. I’d also be curious to know if their facility could produce products besides bags from the many other sources of flexible plastic film being recycled.

So that’s why we don’t have a plastic bag ban in Indiana. Now I’m going to venture into giving you my own opinion about the issue.

The next time you shop, remember to bring your own bag.

I don’t think we need plastic bag bans to try to persuade people to stop using them. I also think it is ridiculous to enact a plastic bag ban ban that keeps a local agency from enacting the wishes of their own constituency if that is what people want. 

My role and my goal are to educate people that single-use plastics are having a devastating effect on our environment globally. Plastic lasts forever in the environment, breaking down over many years into smaller pieces of plastic that get into tiny organisms and work their way up the food chain and through water and salt collection systems into our bodies. That’s undisputable. 

We should all be bringing our own bags to the store, effectively eliminating much of the pollution caused by plastic bags without any legislation. 

For practical advice: Hang your reusable bags on the doorknob of your front door. The next time you go to your car for any reason, put them in your car.  When you go shopping, train yourself to bring those bags in. Give yourself a treat if you do.

If you get all the way to the checkout and realize you forgot your bags, go out and get them. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it next time. The inconvenience will help ingrain the habit. If you forget your bags altogether, make a point of forcing yourself to carry everything in your arms and pockets; another self-training tool.

Let’s work together to make it the norm to assume we are all going to bring our own bags. This is true for the convenience store, the big box store, or anywhere you will be making purchases.

When plastic bags end up in your life despite your best efforts, you can re-use or recycle them. Don’t put them in your curbside recycle bin because they get tangled up in the processing equipment. 

All of the Kroger, Meijer, Target, and Lowe’s plus lots of other stores have bag recycling bins right inside their front doors.  Save them up and chuck them in your car to take in the next time you need to shop. 

They will go to Hilex Poly in North Vernon and be recycled into bags or maybe something else, and support the local economy there. Reduce, re-use, and then when necessary, recycle.

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected]
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