To curb the proliferation of plastic bags littering Georgia’s highways or clogging landfills, state senators are proposing legislation that could eliminate plastic bags at grocery store checkouts.
Plastic bag bans are not new. States and municipalities nationwide have been struggling for a ban for years.
In Georgia, around 2015, Athens and Tybee Island tried in vain to enforce their own local bans. Their efforts even resulted in a state Senate bill that would bar municipalities from enacting such bans, but the bill never became law.
Senate Bill 49 would ban plastic bags being distributed at points of sale starting Jan. 1, 2026. Nine senators, all Democrats, support the bill.
From the archive:Tybee considers banning plastic bags
Screws and nuts:Tybee Island officials back plastic bag ban at first reading
The problem of plastic pollution permeates waterways
Strolling along a river, creek, or even the side of a road, Georgians are no stranger to the sight of a stray plastic bag.
Kris Howard, the science and policy manager for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the Ogeechee River basin, said plastic bags are a commonly observed problem in his industry, but it’s not always reflected well in the community data reflected.
Like many river maintenance organizations, Ogeechee Riverkeeper operates some litter traps that catch floating debris before it flows down the waterway without impeding the water or wildlife movements. But plastic bags don’t float as well as other litter like Styrofoam or plastic cups. To complicate an already challenging problem, Howard said plastic bags are made of a thin film that’s more likely to tear into smaller pieces, making them difficult to remove from the environment.
“You’re going to see plastic bags getting caught in trees, getting caught in roots,” Howard said. “When we clean up, we try to pick up as much of it as we can, but unless it gets caught in a tree or somewhere, it will eventually end up on its way to the Sound and into the ocean.”
Efficacy could be a mixed bag
A plastic bag ban would reduce the number of plastic foil bags shoppers use in the state. However, research at the University of Georgia questions whether a ban will affect plastic-use habits in Georgia.
Yu Kai Huang, a resource and environmental economist, was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia on plastic bag bans and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Huang looked for the unexpected: the implications for environmental policy, which despite the best of intentions can pave the way to some bad outcomes. To look at the plastic bag issue, he focused on finding out if people were buying more bin bags when they didn’t have access to the free plastic bags.
He studied a handful of California communities with the bans and compared records of grocery store garbage bag purchases before and after the policy’s implementation.
“We chose garbage bags because we observed and also noticed from other people and media that people reuse these free plastic grocery bags to pack their garbage,” Huang said. Specifically, sales of 4-gallon garbage bags increased 55% to 75% and sales of 8-gallon garbage bags increased 87% to 110%.
Despite that trade-off, Huang said that in high-volume stores, there’s a tipping point where a store ends up wasting less plastic bags.
Huang acknowledged that his research was narrow in scope and does not prove that a policy as a whole is effective or ineffective, but rather provides insight into how spending habits and economics can affect environmental policies.
“I think that part is difficult because when people are so used to using these plastic bags, it’s very difficult to change people’s behavior… but some economic incentives can be put in place in those contexts,” he said.
Whether it’s a discount for shoppers who bring their own reusable bags, or a small fee for a bag, or even technological research into more sustainably produced single-use bags, Huang said there are other ways to economically boost plastic-go away.
Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at 912-328-4411 or at email@example.com.