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The Friends of Plastic Bags

Daniel Imhoff
Daniel Imhoff is a researcher, author, and independent publisher focused on farming, conservation, public policy, and design. He is the president and co-founder of Watershed Media, a non-profit publishing house based in California.

I am clearly frustrated by single-use disposable packaging. You know, the take-out Styrofoam clamshell that you use for twenty minutes but which then lasts, wherever it ultimately ends up, longer than Michaelangelo’s statue of David. Or that plastic water bottle you picked up at the gas station. It’s not going to rot in Hell. It might outlast Hell. So let’s begin to call the wasteful stuff that makes our convenience dependent lifestyles possible by its true name. Single-use, disposable packaging.

Another fairly obvious point. There is a crystal clear answer to the paper or plastic conundrum: neither. Bring your own reusable bags with you wherever you go. If you want to choose between paper—the clearcutting of forests, grinding of logs into chips, pulping with harsh chemicals and boundless amounts of electricity—or plastic—the production of ultra-thin films made from petroleum or natural gas, then you’ll always be choosing between the lesser of two evils. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The humble reusable bag, preferably made of fabric scraps or organic cloth or something durable, will easily take the burden off your hands.

Early in 2008, China announced that it was outlawing the distribution and production of disposable plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are known as “white pollution” in China. That’s because they’re used by the billions and blow around the landscape like albino tumbleweeds. Just two decades ago plastic bags barely existed in that country. A billion people did all their shopping on a daily basis and carried things around in cloth sacks and bicycle baskets. China now joins South Africa, Ireland, Bangladesh, Taiwan, the city of San Francisco, and a growing number of countries, municipalities, and corporations attempting to do something about the single-use disposable bag dilemma.

This sentiment is not universal. There are people, corporate conspirators actually, who don’t want you to use your reusable canvas sacks, handy totes, folded up paper bags, and carefully washed produce bags. They call themselves by a number of names: the Progressive Bag Alliance and the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. In essence, they are an industry trade group made up of plastic bag manufacturers, chemical producers, large retailers, and grocery chains who want us to continue buying plastic bags by the billions. For the sake of this essay, let’s just call them The Friends of Plastic Bags. Their main argument is that plastic bags are “recyclable” and therefore “good for the environment.”

That one single word—recyclable—is insidiously deceiving. It’s true, theoretically, plastic bags are capable of being recycled. They can be melted into plastic decking (because we no longer have decent logs to harvest). They can be remanufactured into other bags too. But a plastic tote doesn’t beget a new bag the way, say, an aluminum can or glass bottle so easily does. It is said that once recycled, an aluminum can returns to the shelf as a brand new can within two months. Or that an aluminum can tossed away in Brazil never touches the ground, so adept and prolific are that nation’s trash recyclers, (and so coveted is that material). In contrast, worldwide just one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Most municipalities aren’t set up to collect or sort them. And currently, there is no real manufacturing infrastructure for their reuse. For people dealing with municipal trash and the protection of wildlife, plastic bags are a number one pain in the ass.

Plastic bags are produced each year by the trillions. They are the world’s top consumer item. Ninety-eight percent or more of the 100 billion polyethylene bags Americans use each year are simply tossed away after a single outing. (California alone is responsible for 19 billion.) They float into trees, clog storm drains, harm wildlife in waterways, and entwine themselves in the rollers at recycling facilities. The truth is we don’t need them nearly as much as we may think we do or the Friends of Plastic Bags would like us to believe we do.

The Friends of Plastic Bags have deep pockets, a cadre of lawyers, and more than their fair share of lobbyists. This makes for a formidable and mean-spirited opponent. They not only want to ensure that plastic bags are here to stay permanently (because by design, they are). They want to take aim at the very democratic process itself. In order to maintain their market share, they have adopted an aggressive strategy known as “pre-emption.” In California, lobbyists successfully introduced State Law AB 2449 which prohibits local governments from assessing a fee on plastic shopping bags. This means that even if a city government or town council wanted to assess a fee on shopping bags to reduce litter, encourage resourcefulness, or just get hip to the environmental realities of the 21st century, it is no longer an option. Plastic bags now enjoy a protected status within the Golden State. Sort of like the bald eagle or peregrine falcon.

This is why in April 2007 the city of San Francisco—burdened by white pollution problems of its own—had to choose the next best avenue. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors determined that all supermarket and chain drugstore checkout bags be durable, reusable, recyclable paper, or compostable plastic by November 2007. A year earlier, San Francisco’s Department of the Environment had actually recommended that a 17-cent fee be levied on plastic bags to deal with the costs of recycling and cleanup. Studies show that economic incentives (or penalties) are among the most effective ways to shift consumer behavior. But the pre-emption on fees on plastic bags made that action impossible.

After decades of hard work, the city has developed one of the country’s most advanced waste collection and recovery programs, including kitchen scraps and yard waste. The compostable bio-bags now required will also fit into the kitchen compost buckets most residents keep beside their sinks. This may help assuage “the ick factor” that many residents complain about household composting.

Cities up and down the West Coast had been waiting for San Francisco to make the first move on plastic bags. Many insiders expected cities to fall like dominoes, rolling out plastic bag bans from one side of the country to the other. As soon as the city issued their ordinance, the City of Oakland followed suit by adopting an almost identical ordinance. So did the town of Fairfax at the base of Mount Tamalpais. In Sonoma County, the town of Healdsburg took up the issue as well.

The Friends of Plastic Bags promptly filed a law suit against the city of Oakland for failing to properly complete a California Environmental Quality Act assessment before passing their ordinance. Fairfax received a similar legal complaint. Even before anything had been decided upon, Healdsburg city council members received letters threatening legal challenges.

Fairfax quickly repealed its ordinance. Apparently it only has a few large retailers and they were already complying with the change voluntarily. San Francisco and Oakland are moving ahead regardless. Healdsburg joined other Sonoma County municipalities and initiated a 6-month trial plastic bag curbside pick-up program and has launched a Promote the Tote campaign to vastly increase the local pool of available reusable bags in the community. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised to find out that The Friends of Plastic Bags have successfully passed laws pre-empting local governments from taking such decisive action in a state near you.

The clock is ticking. Waste continues to mount, species are disappearing in record numbers, Antarctic ice sheets are breaking off in chunks the size of small countries, and corporations are waging legal battles to prevent citizens and officials from doing anything about it. China—in the mean time—has taken leadership on this issue.

It’s time to decide which side you are on: The Friends of Plastic Bags or The Friends of Neither. And then roll up your sleeves and do something about it. Because if we can’t find an elegant and universal solution to an issue like single-use disposable shopping bags, we don’t stand a chance against more serious problems lurking right around the corner.

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