Starting on June 1, grocery stores in my home-away-from-home will charge a 15-cent fee for the use of plastic grocery bags. This initiative (basically a Pigouvian tax on an activity that generates a negative externality) has been in the works for many years and after a lot of discussion and push-back appears to be finally happening.
This particular externality has many potential solutions. A tax or fee can be imposed on the use of bags, consumers can receive a subsidy for bringing their own bags or for recycling bags, or plastic bags can be banned outright. Each of these alternatives has pros and cons.
Many areas have banned plastic bags. Examples include the state of California, the Outer Banks of NC, Austin, TX and Seattle, WA. Some places also have fees for paper bags.
Are bans on plastic bags beneficial? Maybe. Like many things that appear simple, it is a complicated issue and there are no easy answers.
Here is a short article at Scientific American on the effectiveness of bag bans.
Here is a longer article at GreenLiving noting some of the important drawbacks and unintended consequences associated with bag bans.
Here is a summary of research from the University of New Hampshire on the costs and benefits of different approaches. Importantly, the research shows that in some cases, bans might not be as good for the environment as initially thought. When lightweight plastic bags are banned, people tend to substitute thicker bags, which are worse.