PBS Farm Bill documentary features Dan Imhoff and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

From the Founding Farmers to the modern Farm Bill, what has 200 years of progress brought to the table? More food at lower prices for sure, but also food fights over the environment, hunger, nutrition, and waste. In this closing episode of the 13-part PBS series Food Forward TV, Watershed Media co-founder Dan Imhoff, along with politicians, policy watchdogs and food experts take viewers on a personal tour through the history of food and agriculture in America. There’s an entry point for everyone in the conversation about how we feed ourselves.


The Friends of Plastic Bags

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.

San Francisco Punts on a Shopping Bag Fee

A number of people have been asking me to weigh in on San Francisco's recent decision to postpone levying a 17-cent fee on paper or plastic shopping bags. Instead of a per-bag fee, in November 2005 the city set the goal of reducing 10 million paper and plastic shopping bags over the next twelve months. Seventeen cents was the amount that San Francisco Department of Environment researchers estimated would be required to cover both the costs of pick-up and disposal as well as to launch a campaign to increase the pool of reusable cloth bags.

San Francisco city residents use between 80 and 150 million paper and plastic shopping bags per year. The country's annual tally of polyethylene shopping bags tops 100 billion, according to Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, p. 192.) Plastic bags become airborne, litter streets and snag on tree limbs, clog sewers and storm drains, and are a general bane to solid waste collectors. Because both paper and plastic have significant upstream impacts in their manufacture, and both are ultimately short-term disposables, the ideal solution is something that's durable and long-lasting rather than landfill bound. In other words, a system - not a preferred material.

Some countries have already banned plastic shopping bags outright. Ecologist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai has proposed that her native country of Kenya ban plastic bags because they blow around, collect water, and serve as ready breeding grounds for mosquitoes which then become vectors for malaria. Ireland has achieved radical reductions in plastic shopping bag consumption with a 10-cent fee at the counter. Other countries including Australia are following suit.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome's office began seriously considering the 17-cent fee on both paper and plastic shopping bags, people in Northern California, across the state, and the entire country took notice. Disposable plastics are becoming an increasing burden for municipalities everywhere. States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and others have already become waste depositories for states whose landfills are maxed out. The number one export to Asia from the West Coast is now used corrugated cardboard boxes. And this is not just a land-based quagmire. For many years, marine researchers have been reporting troublesome findings about the concentration of plastics in the stomachs of fish and sea birds and the contamination of beaches and seabeds. According to Dr. Charles Moore, the 500 square-mile area known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre contains at least 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. It's gruesome, really.

After some careful study, in November 2005 San Francisco's Board of Supervisors decided not to levy a fee on shopping bags. Instead, over the next year, the city will attempt to voluntarily reduce 10 million bags from its annual waste stream. According to a press release from the San Francisco Department of the Environment: "A reduction of 10 million bags will keep 95 tons of material plastic out of San Francisco's waste stream, and will reduce San Francisco's contribution of greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million pounds of CO2. This is equivalent to 44,000 gallons of oil or taking more than 14,000 automobiles off the road for a day."

Obviously, this is not the far-reaching initiative that many of us hoped for. Empirical evidence from around the world shows that the most effective way to shift behavior is through financial penalties such as the proposed fee on bags. In the mean time, the Department of the Environment will be allowed to carefully assess the progress of the experiment. After that time, the bag fee proposal can once again be placed on the table.

My preliminary investigations uncovered a few contributing factors leading to the decision. Realizing the domino effect that could take place if San Francisco placed a fee on disposable shopping bags, a coalition of paper, plastic, bag manufacturers, and retail grocery trade associations among others put up a considerable sum (upwards of a million dollars) to hire a lobbyist and launch a campaign to thwart the proposal. This is typical of the push-pull struggles between municipalities and private industry that have been brewing for decades. In Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws have successfully placed some of the financial burden for waste disposal on the businesses that generate it. So far in the U.S., corporate interests have won the battle, and waste disposal remains a civic responsibility and burden.

The coalition used a few key arguments in tipping the scale away from a bag fee. Concerns were raised about the impact on dog owners and pedestrians if there weren't enough plastic bags to scoop poop with. (No kidding.) Cautions were also raised about potential discriminatory effects that a fee might have on less affluent residents. A training program was cobbled together to help clerks become more effective baggers. Ultimately, the bag-fee opponents succeeded in shifting the debate from one of reduction to recycling, by arguing that the responsibility for waste disposal lies with local government rather than retailers and manufacturers.

On a brighter note, if the 10 million per year bag reduction is not met, there is still a chance that the city can be shown what a groundbreaking and important precedent this would set not just for Northern California, but for the entire state and the nation as a whole. Then and only then can we begin that journey of a thousand steps to put this legacy of disposability behind us.

Sustainability is a Fighting Word

Sustainability should be a fighting word. But like so many terms in our modern lexicon, "sustainability" has long been dragged through the mud, through the marketplace, through governmental and nongovernmental circles. We find it on corporate annual reports, in descriptions of modern agriculture, even embedded in tag lines of nonprofit publishing houses like Watershed Media. Along with other fighting words like "organic," "natural," and "biodiversity," sustainability wavers on a precipice above a void of total and complete ambiguity. (All good things will inevitably be co-opted and rendered meaningless.)

If we do take the time to examine this word, however, we find one of the juiciest, most fragile, and illusive onions one could ever hope to peel. At its core, sustainability implies, quite literally, the ability to sustain. So the operative question we need to continually keep in mind as we unravel the proverbial onion should be to sustain what? We hear all kinds of mega forces piggybacked alongside the sustainability train: sustainable agriculture, sustainable design, sustainable development - even sustainable growth. It is a testament to the power, the urgency, but also the inadequacy of the word, and perhaps ultimately, the inadequacy of language itself. Anyone for sustainable obesity? Or sustainable debauchery?

At its deepest and most fundamental sense, our vision of sustainability must transcend human concerns and embrace all of the life forms that make up this sweet earth. One need look no further than Arne Naess' principles of deep ecology or the lucid prose of one of our greatest living American writers, Wendell Berry, to find the real trajectory that the word should inspire. On a personal (and perhaps simplistic) level, sustainability implies the relentless nurturing of ever-deepening relationships. It is only at the level of direct interaction that we can adequately respond to the needs of the living world around us. At that point of intimate scale and connection, we become informed and inspired. And perhaps prepared to put up our dukes and defend what's worth fighting for.