When my hometown of San Luis Obispo decided to ban plastic bags I thought, “only in my city.” On January 11, 2012, our Integrated Waste Management Authority board voted 8-5 to ban plastic shopping bags at stores throughout the county starting October 1. Not only will my city not have plastic bags, but paper bags will cost 10 cents each. Of course the goal is to get us to buy reusable bags—you know the cloth ones made in China that contain lead and breed bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Oh and did I mention that these reusable bags are not usually biodegradable nor recyclable? Sounds like a fantastic way to help the environment.

Frustrated by the increasing environmental “wakoism” in my area, I decided to do some research about plastic bags and discovered that similar bans are happening throughout the country. My city was the fifteenth community in California to institute a ban. Guess what California city was the first (and first in the nation)?

That’s right. San Francisco.

Ross Mirkarimi, the currently suspended sheriff of San Francisco, instigated the nation’s first plastic bag ban. Mirkarimi stated that getting rid of plastic bags would help reduce global warming, dependence on foreign oil, and overflowing landfills. The original ban, which applied to supermarkets and chain pharmacies, has since been extended to include retail businesses and restaurants.

Plastic bans are also taking place in Washington, Texas, Colorado, and in a host of other states. Europe started the ball rolling over a decade ago and like most things, the United States has followed suit. In 2011, Italy became Europe’s first country to ban plastic bags. Now the European Union is considering a tax or a complete ban to combat rising levels of plastic waste. Even countries outside the EU such as China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Bangladesh have banned plastic bags.

When I was a kid, environmentalists were begging us to use plastic bags at the grocery store. Now the same people, who claimed plastic bags were better for the environment, are telling us the opposite. So what changed?

Environmentalists, once so enthusiastic about plastic bags, now claim that 12 million barrels of oil are used annually to make them. This is not true. American manufactured bags are made of polyethylene, a light and flexible synthetic resin made by polymerizing ethylene (ethylene, a flammable hydrocarbon gas, is a waste by-product obtained from refining natural gas). According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), banning plastic bags will not reduce our dependence on oil since no oil drilling takes place to manufacture American-made bags. If we can’t drill oil to put in our cars, do you think we’re drilling oil to make plastic bags?

Environmentalists are also now claiming that plastic bags produce more greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, it’s just the opposite. According to the Food Marketing Institute’s Plastic Bag Backgrounder, paper bags require four times more energy to produce than a plastic bag. The manufacturing process of paper bags generates 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags. A 2006 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency found that plastic bags have a lighter “environmental footprint” than paper bags. Plastic bags are also more environmentally friendly than long life bags. A recent BBC online article, “What Should Be Done About Plastic Bags?,” stated that, “last year, Britain’s Environment Agency published a Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags, which concluded that long-life bags have to be reused a number of times if they are to be environmentally a better option than standard plastic carrier bags.” In addition, plastic bags take up much less space in landfills and weigh substantially less than paper bags. They also generate 80% less waste than paper bags and make up only 0.5% of the municipal solid waste stream.

So while environmentalists are running around trying to prevent global warming, dependence on oil, overflowing landfills, and crying about some endangered seals choking on plastic bags floating in the ocean, thousands of jobs are being put at risk by these bans. More than 10,000 people are directly employed by the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industries. With 72.5% of plastic bags manufactured domestically and high unemployment rates, it seems idiotic to destroy companies creating green jobs that actually benefit the environment. Forcing plastic bags out of our stores will benefit China, which makes the majority of reusable bags.  In an age where virtually nothing is made in the United States, ensuring that companies stay in business and keep jobs in this country should be our primary concern, not seals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should trash the planet. I’m not saying reusable bags are worthless (although I’m highly skeptical they will solve environmental problems). What I am saying is that we must act responsibly by not littering or throwing away items that can be recycled. Our desire to protect wildlife — or anything else for that matter — should never come at the expense of people who must earn a living. We must protect American jobs. We must support American companies.

But I think there’s something more sinister at work. Plastic bag bans are about more than saving the planet or wanting people to buy reusable bags; they’re about government running our lives. If they can tell us what type of grocery bags to use, pretty soon they’ll be telling us what food we can buy. Don’t believe me? Just wait and see. Government is growing bigger every day and at a faster pace than ever before. Bans are a perfect example of how government is slowly intruding into our lives and encroaching on our freedoms. Do we really want to be like socialist Europe or Communist China? Some groups are fighting back, such as Save the Plastic Bags, which has sued a number of communities, including mine, for implementing bans. Unfortunately, they have lost all law suits thus far. Some cities are also fighting back, voting down measures to ban or tax bags.

So what is the solution? Education. Many people throw away their plastic bags when they get home. They never think to put them in the recycle bin or reuse them as trash liners. What environmentalists should do is let people know that plastic bags can be reused and should be recycled. According to a National Plastic Shopping Bag Recycling survey, 90% of Americans reuse their plastic bags at least once.  My family reuses plastic and paper bags from the grocery store. If you don’t, do it! You’d be surprised at how handy they can be.  In the past nine years, plastic bag recycling has doubled, mostly likely due to increased bag collection programs. For example, in 2006, 812 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled. In 2010, more than 900 million were recycled.

While plastic bags may not be perfect, the facts are on their side. Studies have repeatedly shown that they are better for the environment than paper or reusable alternatives. Don’t fall for environmentalist lies. Don’t give government more power to regulate. We can protect the environment more effectively by using plastic bags while standing up for American jobs and American-made products. Yes, we can have our cake and eat it too.

**If you’re interested in signing petitions against plastic bag bans in your state, follow this link for more information: http://www.bagtheban.com/take-action/

Elena Reynolds | Cal Polytechnic State University | San Luis Obispo, California | @Elena_Reynolds