A recent op-ed, “Community Compass: Plastic bag ban would make a difference in Waterville” (Sept. 12), encourages Waterville voters to approve on Nov. 6 a poorly conceived restriction on the use of plastic bags.

This ordinance would ban plastic shopping bags at businesses that are 10,000 square feet or larger. The op-ed erroneously states that these large stores are the main source of littered plastic bags; the fact is that littered plastic bags predominantly come from smaller establishments such as convenience stores, a fact that is supported by data from a 2013 multi-city bag litter survey. That is why a number of littered plastic bags have generic labels such as “Thank You” on them.

In 2010, our firm conducted a statewide litter survey in Maine. The results, similar to virtually every other statistically based litter survey conducted throughout the United States, found that plastic shopping bags make up a very small portion of litter. Plastic film and bags of all types accounted for just 2.4 percent of litter in Maine. Plastic shopping bags are just a fraction of this category, which also includes items like shrink wrap, trash bags and leaf bags.

In contrast, items such as candy and snack wrappers are far more prevalent, accounting for 13.5 percent of litter statewide in Maine.

The op-ed further misleads residents into believing that this ordinance will reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. What happens when thin plastic shopping bags are banned? Typically, they are replaced by bags made from heavy paper or thicker plastic to meet the restrictions of these new ordinances. A study commissioned by the city of Austin found that their 2013 plastic bag ban led to residents and businesses purchasing thicker bags for trash disposal. So their bag ban actually caused the amount of plastic waste making its way into landfills to increase.

Moreover, a study by APCO Insight found that consumers reuse more than 92 percent of their plastic shopping bags and about two-thirds — 65 percent — reuse them as trash bags. This offsets the use of thicker plastic garbage bags.

A study from the government of Quebec found that plastic grocery bags have the least environmental impact among bagging options. The manufacture of paper bags, a common alternative to plastics in grocery stores, results in twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to plastic bags.

For shoppers bringing bags from home, reusable shopping bags or cotton tote bags must be used up to 60 or even up to 3,000 times, respectively, to have a lower environmental impact than plastic shopping bags, which can also be reused or dropped off for recycling at a number of grocery stores and other retailers.

While this ordinance may lead residents to believe that they are taking a big step to reduce waste and pollution, that goal will be best achieved by continuing to encourage the reuse and recycling of all types of shopping bags.

Steven Stein is principal of Environmental Resources Planning in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

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