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Plastic Bag Ban Blues...and Greens

January 17, 2014

 

January 1, 2014, in Los Angeles County, plastic bans were officially banned (also known as the “Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance,” which directed shoppers to either pay 10 cents per paper bag, purchase a $3.00 canvas bag, or rely on their memory (and perhaps juggling skills).  In the wake of this partially planet-centered shift, some shoppers have resorted to awkwardly cradling their food to the car, as a message of “why pay for something I don’t really need?”  To me, this expression highlights the purpose of banning bags: show people how convention may be convenient, but living sustainably requires something other than single-use strategies. 

Interestingly, there is a sticky debate on the eco-nomics of sending plastic bags to bed for good.  The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) mentions that advocates emphasize these four justifications for banning plastic bags, however, the factual reality challenges some of our common presumptions in the case of Plastic Bags vs. Mindful Marketplace: 

(1) Scarce resources are used to create plastic bags.

Washington Policy Center says, “Banning the bags may actually be a net negative for the environment, yielding little environmental benefit while increasing carbon emissions and other impacts...The U.K. Environment Agency compared energy use for plastic, paper and re-usable bags. It found the ‘global warming potential’ of plastic grocery bags is one-fourth that of paper bags and 1/173rd that of a reusable cotton bag. In other words, consumers would have to use a cotton bag 173 times, or once a week for more than three years, before it matched the energy savings of plastic bags.” 

(2) Environmental harm when plastic bags are disposed of improperly. 

It’s common to hear how marine life suffers from plastic, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “an accurate estimate does not yet exist for how much debris is composed of plastic materials,” nor plastic bags specifically.  

New research from Angelicque White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University questions the mythical statements of a “Great Garbage Patch” the size of Texas in the Atlantic.  "There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists...Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic." 

Michael Bolinder of Anacostia Riverkeeper, who cleans and protects one of the major waterways in Washington, D.C. says, “it used to be that the [river-based trash] traps were roughly 50 percent bags, now we almost never find a bag.”

(3) The visible blight of plastic bag roadside litter.

Let’s just say the odds of someone arguing in favor of plastic bag tinsel in trees, and the desirable look of it lining our freeways is slim. 

(4) The cost of disposing or recycling plastic bags.

According to the NCPA, “In the cities that have adopted bag bans, fees or taxes, there is little evidence so far that banning or taxing plastic bags will reduce waste disposal costs and save money.”  When it comes to the cost to our environment, EarthTalk states “most paper grocery bags in use today are made from recycled content, not virgin wood. Also, an added benefit of paper over petroleum-based plastic is its biodegradability.”

With less plastic bags blowing around Los Angeles, we can clearly see there are many sides to this story...and many questions as to whether bag banning will become a trend, or sustainable strategy. 

RESOURCES

Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance - http://lacitybag.com 

Washington Policy Center - http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/publications/opinion/trendy-drive-ban-plastic-grocery-bags-does-it-really-help-environment 

National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) - http://www.ncpa.org/pub/st353 

compared energy use for plastic, paper, and re-useable bags - http://publications.environment-agency.gov.uk/PDF/SCHO0711BUAN-E-E.pdf 

marine life suffers from plastic - http://www.environmentcalifornia.org/programs/keep-plastic-out-pacific 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/learn-basics/types-and-sources 

inaccurate to state the plastic outweighs plankton - http://www.earthtimes.org/pollution/pacific-plastic-debris-area-not-big-previously-estimated/182/ 

Michael Bolinder of Anacostia Riverkeeper - http://www.npr.org/2012/06/05/154354092/do-plastic-bags-bans-help-the-environment 

EarthTalk - http://business-ethics.com/2010/04/10/0957-does-banning-plastic-bags-help-the-environment/ 

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