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Other voices: Plastic bag bans hold hidden costs
By H. Sterling Burnett | National Center for Policy Analysis

Feb. 6 -- More than two dozen cities nationwide have either banned plastic grocery bags -- in some cases even paper bags -- entirely or have imposed a fee for using them in order to encourage the use of reusable bags. Other cities are considering similar action. However, such policies have hidden costs that are virtually ignored.

Consumers like choice and most choose plastic bags for their convenience, strength and options for multiple use. As a result, anecdotal evidence indicates that cities with bag bans have lost commerce, while surrounding cities and neighborhoods benefit from shoppers who choose to go elsewhere.

Contrary to the myth propagated by environmental lobbyists and other plastic bag opponents, plastic bags are rarely single-use items. Rather, long after plastic bags transport the groceries, people find a variety of ways to reuse them. They are used as lunch bags, car litter bags, to line bathroom trash bins, to collect dog waste and to seal soiled diapers. Other uses include carrying donation items to goodwill, transporting laundry to the cleaners and securing items in the garage and attic. Some people carry bags on walks to pick up stray trash.

Without them, we will likely buy more trash bags and baggies to compensate. In stores that ban plastic grocery bags, shoppers have become creative, using thin plastic bags from the fresh vegetable sections of stores to carry out groceries -- double- and triple-lining them to make them work. Now thatīs a waste nightmare and a sheer waste of resources.

As to plastic bag recycling, it is on the rise.

A number of major retailers have set up recycling boxes at the entrances of their stores to encourage recycling. Indeed, plastic bag recovery has increased by 31% since 2005. This growth is more than nine times greater than the 3.4% increase in recovery of all municipal solid waste from 2005 to 2009, according to U.S. EPA data. Recovery of post-consumer film, which includes plastic bags and product wraps, grew to an estimated 854 million pounds in 2009. Bag bans will reduce the motivation for those recycling efforts.

Another economic drawback? The largest manufacturer of reusable bags is China, while thousands of U.S. workers are employed manufacturing plastic bags in the U.S. Thus, cities that support bag bans are handing China control of yet another industry while threatening jobs at home.

Reusable bags present a health challenge. When used to carry meats, poultry or fish, blood and other fluids can soak into the material. If not cleaned regularly and stored properly, bacteria, including e-coli, can take up residence and mold can form. Continued use can contaminate the usersī own food and even the food of others, as the contaminated reusable bags come into contact with grocery carts and conveyor belts.

Indeed, several instances of illness have already been linked to reusable bags. Itīs true that reusable bags can be washed, but doing so shortens their useful life considerably. Dirty and worn reusable bags then make their way to the landfill.

Sadly, too much of the push to ban plastic bags is based on false or misreported data.

For example, bag ban proponents in Austin, Texas, say that plastic bags make up a large portion of the litter on roadways. Bob Gedert, director of city department Austin Resource Recovery, testified before the City Council that a recent study, "Litter in America," found that plastic bags comprise 2.2% of the cityīs litter.

However, a co-author of the study responded in writing to clarify that his study never said that. Rather, plastic bag litter comprises only 0.6% of litter volume. Even the 0.6% figure is high, since it includes other types of plastic waste, such as industrial wrapping, dry cleaner and trash bags. Indeed, the national 2009 Keep America Beautiful study does not even include plastic bags in its top 10 for sources of litter.

Plastic bags are a minor part of our larger waste problems.

Every city that bans plastic bags costs shoppers, businesses, city government and workers across the nation, with little or no benefit for the environment. Unfortunately, bad data results in bad policy.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute with offices in Dallas, Texas and Washington D.C.

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I have used canvas shopping bags for more then 15 years w/o a single incident, when the they get soiled I wash them. Have 2 canvas bags that are 10 plus year old and still serviceable! Though it may seem they (plastic bags)don't show in the top 10 list of clean up or litter events. Its more than likely they were in the trees or in fences miles away because they blow like crazy!! I have found Texas and Nebraska shopping bags on my farm in W. Okla. hundreds of miles from this locales. Plastics bags and foam cups are the number 1 and 2 items I find in my clean up event in central Oklahoma.

Bryce Hulsey
Env. Tech II

Mr. Burnett is absolutely correct about the other uses of plastic bags and the pitfalls of reusable bags. Why don't lawmakers actually think of the consequences of their proposed laws before they make them into law?

Ann Hughes

Reusable bags work in cities all over America. Waste and Recycling News can do better than essentially reprinting the arguments of disposable plastic bag manufacturers.

Greg Voelm

Greg: Thank you for taking the time to comment on our site. Please remember that this was a guest column, expressing the views of the author. We welcome all voices of the recycling and waste industry to participate on our site and in our publication. We don't want to "reprint" arguments from one side or the other. We want our opinion pages and comments section to be a place where diverse opinions meet and then are tested by the sharp and critical minds of our industry. We welcome guest columns, comments and letters to the editor. Please shoot me an email if you are interested. Thanks again.

John Campanelli
Waste & Recycling News

While I am not a proponent of plastic bag bans, I am an ardent supporter of truth and factual responsibility in reporting, regardless of where the facts lead. In that regard, Mr. Burnett's article is appallingly weak. while he excoriates the "myth perpetuated by environmental lobbyists" on the one hand, he relies on "anecdotal evidence" and unsubstantiated suppositions to support his own arguments. Nor do the EPA statistics he cites hold up to scrutiny. Certainly plastic film recycling is on the rise. Any new material that is introduced into the recycling stream enjoys a huge percentage in growth initially. It doesn't take a Sr. Fellow to see that going from 0 tons to anything will yield an impressive percentage increase. Moreover, comparing this stat to "the 3.4% increase in recovery of MSW" is ludicrous. MSW contains everything from dirty diapers to yard debris. How is that comparison useful or even valid? Regarding the health risks of reusable bags, certainly recent studies have shown the presence of E. coli and other contaminants. How often are these items NOT securely wrapped or contained in plastic already? And wouldn't these contaminants also be on the plastic bags that Mr. Burnett contends we are all reusing anyway? I agree with Mr. Burnett that plastic bags are "a minor part of our larger waste problems," but sadly, too much of his argument is based on false logic, unsubstantiated presumptions and conclusions, and misinterpreted and misrepresented data for it to be worth considering.

Michele Morris
Business Outreach Coordinator
Chittenden Solid Waste District
Williston, VT

While I am also not an avid proponent of plastic bag bans, I did find Mr. Burnett's article to be quite interesting and at least worthy of consideration despite the vociferous comments of Ms. Morris' reply to the contrary. I do indeed reuse all of my own grocery store plastic bags for all of the reasons cited by Mr. Burnett and actually have 3 plastic bags full of clothing donations in my car right now. What few plastic bags I don't reuse I recycle at my local grocery store where I prefer in most cases to use reusable canvas bags, not because I'm a recycling manager with a strong environmental ethic, but because I can carry a lot more groceries in just four canvas bags than I can in 20 + plastic grocery bags. Plastic bag litter is definitely a problem that we have to contend with, but banning plastic bags isn’t going to teach people about environmental responsibility any more than taxing plastic bags is going to convince the majority of people to forego the convenience of plastic bags in favor of some reusable alternative.

Stiles Peabody
Recycling Analyst
City of Alexandria
Alexandria, VA

This is a misleading article. Plastic bag recycling may have marginally increased over the years, but the overall recycling rate for bags is still abysmal. In CA, where we have state-mandated collection bins for plastic bag recycling at virtually every grocery store, the recycling rate is only 3%. Even if this were to miraculously increase by 50% in the next 5 years, that would still mean a measly 6% recycling rate. Plastic bags have a disproportionate impact on our economy and environment. Even though they make up less than half a percent of the waste stream in San Jose, they cost the city millions to manage in waste processing facilities, landfill and compost piles, and street and stormwater system cleanups. San Jose became the largest US city to adopt a ban on plastic bags last year. And while I agree that it's unsanitary if people don't regularly wash their reusable bags, I realize they probably have some of the same kind of germs already sitting in our unwashed shopping carts. Everyone, let's remember to clean our reusable bags every now and then, but don't fall for industry scare tactics.

Ann Lee
San Jose, CA

A New York assemblyman has proposed a law that would make it a felony to assault sanitation workers in the state. What do you think?
Good idea.
Bad idea.

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