Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Plastic Bag Ban

Yesterday California became the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags from grocery stories. Building on similar efforts by municipalities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Washington D.C. and others throughout the country, the State ban is the latest push against these urban tumble weeds.


After July 1st, 2015, grocery stores and other retail locations will no longer be able to give single-use plastic bags and charge 10-cents for paper or compostable bags. This push comes after the relatively ineffective efforts of the California legislature to enforce recycling of these plastic pests. In 2006 the state put forward legislation mandating recycling at stores and, eventually, curb-side locations. The estimate by most agencies was that as few as 3% of California's plastic bags we actually being recycled and the law had little to no oversight. This isn't the first time that California has tried to pass a Plastic Bag Ban, but this is the first successful effort.

The pollution and waste that these products create has been cited as the main reasoning for this legislation. The facts that the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion, and that most of these end up either in land-fills, in creeks, or in our oceans should lead most to the conclusion that the ban is a reasonable move.

Plastics are durable, cheap to make, light and cheap to transport. The same reasons that these bags are attractive to consumers are the same reason that they are a problem. Plastics don't biodegrade, they do break down into smaller parts and photo-degrade but they can last at least 500 years. The lightweight plastic bags get picked up by breezes and eventually make their way to all sorts of places they shouldn't be. During these migrations the plastics absorb bacteria and toxins that can create their own bio-systems and, by being eaten by fish and other animals, can enter our food stream.

What is not cited is the cost these bags to the American taxpayer. Those bags that end up as litter or are caught by trees and the landscape have to be cleaned up. Unless there is a massive volunteer force, the cost of the labor usually falls to the municipalities. While these bags are lauded as "Recyclable," the energy and economic costs associated with recycling can be a huge net-loss and most facilities can't process them. Those that are mandated to collect them, but do not have the equipment to convert them into something new usually ship them to other locations, causing a larger carbon footprint for this film.

In many instances, with mixed recycling being sorted at municipal waste facilities, plastic bags would end up in machines that could not process them and cause those machines to break down. The cost of repairing these machines usually falls to the tax payer.


In 2009 I was working for City Council Member Kansen Chu and, at the time, I worked with city staff on a ban on plastic bags. The process for attempting to pass such legislation included a closed door meeting with stakeholders from the opposition. The list included waste management, grocers associations and the American Chemistry Council. The main arguments were that the ban would cause increased costs for grocers, that paper bags were a higher cost and higher impact alternative and that the convenience of these fully recyclable bags outweighed any "negligible environmental impacts."

During those sessions I talked to each of their points and retorted that, the times are changing and that the Chemistry Council should try and change with them through bio-degradable plastics, or be comfortable with the concept of becoming obsolete.


Almost as soon as California's ban passed, a similar response was published by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of American plastic bag manufacturers and related companies, who plan on trying to repeal the legislating through referendum. Trying to tug at libertarian heartstrings with phrases like "greedy special interests and bad government collide in the policymaking process" the release is short, cryptic and filled with unsubstantiated claims.

The release specifically states that the bill "would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment, and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets."

In regards to California jobs, there are many plastic film producers in California but, like other industries whose product's usefulness has come to an end, those facilities and their staff either need to adapt to new forms of plastic or find new industries to explore.

I actually called the APBA to follow up on the other claims but the representative was unavailable for comment. As of this posting the American Chemical Council, who has direct ties to the formation of the Bag Alliance, had made no public comment.

The fact of the matter is that the real solution regarding plastic waste for American's and people around the world to change their consumption habits to something SLIGHTLY less convenient than getting a new, single-use plastic bag every time we go shopping. We need to recognize our impact and the waste we produce. Remember each time you get a Starbucks or a soft drink with a plastic straw that those items will probably not be recycled and next time, carrying a reusable container or straw would be, in the long run, a better decision.