The truth behind those pesky plastic bags

For Weekly SurgeMay 28, 2012 

Jennifer Sellers.

Hawaii was the first state to do it, San Francisco was the first city to do it and Los Angeles was the largest city to do it. They all banned plastic bags.

Plastic bags are used and, apparently, so abused that they are becoming banned or taxed in cities and states throughout the United States, including Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Maryland. There are 48 cities in California that have banned plastic bags, with a large movement for the entire state to ban the bag. The controversial ban comes after years of campaigning by lobbyists and advocates who believe banning plastic bags would reduce the amount of trash in landfills, litter in waterways and reduce the oil consumption.

So, will the banning of plastic bags really solve these big problems, or create more problems?

First, let’s take a look at the facts of trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastics as a whole (including bottles) represent 12.4 percent of the total waste discarded in the U.S. and plastic bags make up less than one percent of this waste stream. To give you a comparison, paper and cardboard take up 28.5 percent and food waste takes up 13.9 percent, which both seem to be the space hogs in the landfills. So banning plastic bags saves less than one percent of the space in the landfill. Victory? While every little bit helps, it still seems that banning plastic bags to achieve this goal would be insignificant in a landfill.

Now, what about the litter? If litter is a concern, take a look at stats from the 2009 “Litter in America” national litter study of 10,000 individuals for Keep America Beautiful (KAB). During the study, plastic bags were littered at a five percent rate, while cigarette butts were littered at a rate of 57 percent. We seem to be targeting the wrong piece of trash.

So what about the wildlife affected by plastic litter, especially sea turtles and dolphins? Plastic litter (or any kind of litter) poses a threat for all wildlife, no matter what kind it is. It could be fishing line, plastic 6-pack rings or plastic bottle caps. I don’t think litterbugs are only tossing plastic bags into the wind, they probably toss other types of trash too. According to KAB, approximately 85 percent of littering is the result of individual attitudes and changing behavior is key to preventing litter, since 81 percent of littering occurs with intent.

How about all those barrels of oil? Honestly, it is hard to find a reliable source on that exact number. According to the American Chemistry Council, oil and natural gas are the major raw materials used to manufacture plastics and create polyethylene. So figuring out the exact number of oil barrels is undefined, but common sense says that if plastic bags were properly recycled, the number of barrels would greatly be reduced or perhaps eliminated.

One new problem to the plastic bag ban has to do with jobs. According to Hilex Poly, an industry leading manufacturer of plastic bag and film products with headquarters in Hartsville, more than 30,000 people in the U.S. are directly employed in the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry and there are thousands more that are indirectly employed in the industry. In California, there are at least 2,000 people that are employed in the plastic bag industry. Also, more than 75 percent of plastic bags used in the U.S. are made domestically.

What about reusable bags? Use them, but only if you promise to have and use them forever, not til they fall apart. Reusable bags are promoted as a green alternative but these also bear the burden of environmental issues. Reusable woven bags are primarily produced overseas and imported to the U.S., then may end up in the landfill after wear and tear, since I haven’t seen any recycling options. A recent study by the University of Arizona claims that cross-contamination of food products occurs with the use of reusable bags. If not properly washed on a regular basis, reusable bags can play a role in the spread of germs and bacteria, such as E. coli. So, please take care and wash your reusable bags.

I think the real problem with plastic bags is the lack of education about the impacts of recycling and litter. Individuals need to take personal responsibility for their trash and stop littering. Since we only recycle five percent of plastic bags, which are 100 percent recyclable, shouldn’t we try to do better? Municipalities should offer more convenient recycling programs for plastic bags. Maybe retailers should only opt to purchase recycled plastic bags to maintain the recycling loop. To really solve the problem in the landfill and in the environment, why not create a mandatory recycling program for plastic bags? Or better yet, create a deposit on plastic bags, so people can earn money back, like the bottle deposit already in place in several Northern states. Recycling is a large industry in the U.S., with an economic impact of $236 billion a year, and the only way to support it is to actually recycle, not ban the opportunity to do it.

Jennifer Sellers is the sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University and offers her eco-views at her blog, mygreenglasses.com. Contact her at jen@mygreenglasses.com.

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