Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
May 13 2013

Bag Ban Legislative Season Heats Up!

by Bill Hickman

As the legislative season heats up in areas around the country, there is an increase in plastics related legislation.  "The largest single subject of all these bills at the state level is plastic bags. Thirty-five plus bills would either ban plastic bags or put taxes on them or require their take-back. They tend to cover both plastic and paper bags," according to an industry expert.  On top of that, dozens of cities and counties throughout the country are lining up for checkout bag ordinances to help reduce plastic pollution.

While the impacts of plastic pollution are apparent as the ocean is turning into a plastic soup and marine life perishes, opposition groups still pop up to try and prevent meaningful legislation.  Check out Surfrider's Rise Above Plastics program page and Beachapedia page for facts regarding plastics pollution.  Below are some of the common bag ban opposition arguments and how plastic pollution reduction activists can respond to them.

Many opposition arguments focus on paper being an inadequate substitute for plastic bags because they are bulkier so take up more space to transport, more water to produce, etc.  For example, "If California wants to lead in the fight against global warming, banning plastic bags will have the exact opposite effect."

Those types of arguments fail to mention how the most effective bag legislation includes a small fee on paper bags as the incentive for people to remember their bag or simply go without a bag for small purchases.  Washington D.C. has a five cent fee on both plastic and paper checkout bag that has done wonders to reduce overall bag use and litter.  Most California checkout bag ordinances include a ban on plastic bags and ten cent fee for paper bags and many municipalities are now referring to them as 'Reusable Bag Ordinances'.  Some CA municipalities are upping the paper bag fee to 25 cents.
Our friends at Californians Against Waste were among the first to respond to the PR blitz: "Bag Manufacturers have wasted no time in putting out misleading ads and falsely claiming that “junk science” is behind the efforts to keep plastic bags out of the waste stream, waterways and oceans.  Now they’ve decided that the best way to “save” the plastic bag is to attack paper bags as Greenhouse Gas producers and bash reusable bags as health hazards.

• A comparison of paper and plastic bags shows that the industry’s claims against paper are knowingly false—paper bags produce 59% less GHG over their lifecycle, and use less fossil fuel.

• Various industry-funded studies claiming reusable bags cause illness are grossly misleading and contain numerous other flaws.  Simply washing reusable bags when they get dirty virtually eliminates the risk of illness.  (Here's a link to another Surfrider blog on that issue.)

• They claim that phasing out plastic grocery bags will cost 2000 California jobs, while most reusable bags are made in China. In fact, the two California companies that still make plastic bags have already diversified to make other products including reusable bags. There are more California companies manufacturing reusable bags (7), than are still making single use plastic (2).

A Problem Product: We can’t forget the industry's standby argument: plastic bags are 100% recyclable. The truth is less than 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled each year. Proportionately, the production rate is outstripping the recycling rate by double digits. Each year more plastic bags are distributed, disposed and littered than the year before.  Californians used 14 billion single-use plastic bags in 2012. Unfortunately, recycling has not provided a solution to this problem."  Thanks for covering the issue CAW!

In addition: We agree with the statement that most bags in the U.S. are made from natural gas.  On a Society of the Plastics Industry website they state, "plastic bags are 100% recyclable and made from American natural gas." The SPI website does not appear to distinguish between natural gas and the waste byproducts of natural gas, as some claim.  (Nor does it mention that a single-digit percentage of plastic bags actually get recycled, instead they lump plastic bags in with other plastic film to inflate their numbers.)  Natural gas is a non-renewable resource and obtaining it by controversial hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is increasing nationwide.  Fracking got an exemption from the federal Clean Water Act and that, along with the water consumption and wastewater creation, should be taken into account with plastic checkout bags.

Opposition arguments typically ignore the litter impact of plastic bags.  It's tough to nail down exact numbers because it's nearly impossible to tell how many plastic bgas get littered.  Plastic bags are typically a top-ten item collected at beach cleanups.  Plastic bags can clog storm drains and reach the beach various other ways.  It takes taxpayer dollars to cleanup and dispose plastic bags properly.  Most downtown business districts hire people to help pick up plastic bags and other litter.  Look elsewhere around town and it may be another story along walking trails, parks and beaches that don't hire cleanup help. 

Opposition arguments typically include claims of job loss.  Plastic bag manufacturers make a wide variety of plastic bags, plastic film and/or other goods.  The manufactures are well diversified so any claim of significant job loss is unsubstantiated.  Let’s work to create some truly green jobs by helping to stimulate demand for more domestic reusable bags.

Plastic bags are just the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg but something with an easy solution in reusable bags.  At the end of the day the plastic bag issue is a bit more involved than at first glance but many benefits can be cited.  The required environmental review documents from California show the benefits of checkout bag legislation along with the implementation of local legislation in Washington D.C. and over a dozen states has proven that it can be done well.