Do plastic bags enable more littering?

Eastern Avenue, on the border between Washington, DC,
and Prince George’s County, Maryland

I’ve been taking note of bags like the one above lately. Someone obviously cleaned out his or her car, using a plastic grocery bag to contain it all, and then left it next to the curb or alongside the car when driving away. I’ve certainly found bags like this during trash cleanups, and I’ve picked them up on the street. (I did pick this one up after taking the photo. It was mostly single-serve juice bottles and snack wrappers. Maybe the driver had done a road trip and this was the food bought along the way. There are no Wawa stores near where I found the bag, so it had definitely traveled.)

They generally don’t fit down storm drains, at least not when full. Street sweepers might pick them up, but more likely the bags will be torn apart by animals looking for food, or they’ll get run over (since it was left in the road), and the contents will scatter.

Clearly people who do this are thinking about what they are doing. The bags are tied shut, usually placed upright. This demonstrates what we learned in the 2008 littering behavior research that OpinionWorks conducted for the Alice Ferguson Foundation. In that study, admitted litterers participated in focus groups and psychoanalysis to get to the root of why they litter. In general, they feel a lot of stress and lack of control in their lives, so they try to keep their very narrow concept of their personal space tidy, to the detriment of the outside world. In other words, they keep their cars clean but don’t think about where they put the collected refuse–so setting on the street outside their car is just fine.

At the same time, litterers know that the action is illegal; they just don’t expect to get caught. So they tend to set the litter down instead of throwing it; they say, “the bottle wasn’t broken when I left it there.”

And so we end up with plastic bags filled with trash, neatly tied and set upright next to a car. Until, of course, it gets run over and the contents blow all over the place.

These bags also remind me of the American Progressive Bag Alliance’s claim (yes, the trade group that represents plastic bag manufacturers) that 90% of people reuse plastic bags. This stat sounds great, except the vast majority of these “reuses” are one-time reuses, like picking up dog poop and lining household trash cans. I wonder how many people say they are reusing their plastic bags to clean out their cars, and then leaving the full bag on the road.

If we stopped using plastic bags, and instead used durable reusable bags for shopping, would it force these somewhat-conscientious litterers to change their behavior, to clean out their cars at gas stations or at home, where a proper disposal container is available?

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