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The battle to ban the plastic bag

1 million plastic bags per minute are consumed; many end up as trash, blocking storm drains and killing life. As countries ban the bag, lobbyists fight back. Plus one reusable bag incited shopping riots.

Do we need naked groceries?

The plastic shopping bag has a relatively short history. It was introduced to grocery stores in the US and the UK in just 1977, but it quickly became ubiquitous: 90% of grocery bags are now plastic and many of us take nearly a new one every day- annually, we accept about 330 per person in the United States and 326 per person in Australia.

While introduced for their convenience and as an alternative to deforesting paper bags, in the past 4 decades, plastic bags have left their mark on landscapes around the world- earning nicknames like “witches knickers” (UK), “white pollution” (China) and “roadside daisies” or the “national flower” (South Africa)- and are a source of not just litter, but some serious environmental problems.

Today, countries like Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, France, Bangladesh, Bhutan, South Africa, India, China, Taiwan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda have some type of tax or ban and others like Australia and the United Kingdom are considering action.

Things have gotten so bad for the plastic bag that in March of 2007, when San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proposed a ban for San Francisco, he called plastic bags a “relic of the past”. The ban passed and in November of 2007 San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, but his comment may be a bit premature.

Enter the plastic lobbies

As Australia considers a national ban or tax on plastic bags for late 2008, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), National Association of Retail Grocers and Australian National Retailers Association have begun to fight the proposal.

ARA executive director Richard Evans claims: “This initiative will cause confusion, increase costs and add a further compliance burden to retailers.”

This type of pressure has worked in some places. In Los Angeles, pressure from the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group (PFPG; among its members, Chevron Philips Chemical Company, Dow Chemical Company, and Total Petrochemicals USA) caused the city council to reverse their proposal for a ban, instead passing an alternative for a voluntary program.

The Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling threatened the city of Fairfax, California with a lawsuit and instead of fighting, the tiny city opted to reverse the ban they enacted in July of 2007. Oakland, California, when faced with a similar suit has decided to fight.

In light of this backlash- including comments from lobbyists that “the environmental impacts [of plastic bags] are negligible”-, we felt it appropriate to take a look back at the evolution of politics and plastic bags around the world and just why so many decided to ban the bag in the first place.

Warning: plastic bags may cause flooding and unknown health effects

Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags after discovering them to be the main cause of the devastating floods of 1988 and 1998. The bags had blocked drains and as a result two-thirds of the country was submerged under water. In 2002, all plastic shopping bags were banned.

Plastic bags became such a problem in India- flooding, litter and dead cows (they eat them and either choke or starve to death)- that in 2000, the city of Mumbai banned their use.

United Nations advisor Professor Rashmi Mayur told the BBC back in 2001 that the litter problem had already moved far beyond the city with unknown long term health effects.

“Increasingly, all the farms are saturated with the plastic bags, and people don’t know what the plastic does when it leaks. And they grow vegetables, they grow grains and it’s all up-taken by the vegetables and grains and these chemicals have an enormous amount of neurological problems in the blood and so on.”

The national flower

In 2002 the Irish government found plastic bags guilty of being one of the country’s biggest components of litter so in April of 2002, they instituted a “plastax”- a 15 cent tax per bag.

Five months later, Environment Minister Martin Cullen claimed it a success and its effect on the landscape “plain to see“. Today, plastic bag use is down by 90%; annually, the Irish are now using 1 billion less plastic bags.

By 2003, so many used plastic bags littered the landscape in South Africa that they had been dubbed “roadside daisies” and the “national flower”. That year, the government passed one of the strictest bans in existence: retailers who hand out plastic bags of less than 30 microns in thickness face a fine of 100,000 rand ($13,800) or a 10-year jail sentence (bags of more than 30 microns are exempt since they are easier to recycle).

In January of 2008, China banned ultra-thin plastic bags (.025 mm or less)- only 15 years after introducing them in supermarkets- in an attempt to protect the environment and save energy. The country’s website claimed: “The ultra-thin bags are the main source of ‘white’ pollution as they can easily get broken and end up as litter”.

In defense of animals

Concerns over plastic bag litter aren’t simply cosmetic, plastic pollution- and its ingestion or entanglement of marine life- is blamed for the death of over a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year.

Residents of Coles Bay, Tasmania (Australia) banned plastic bags in 2003 partly due to their proximity to a national park and the whales that migrate annually up the coast (we have a video in the town with shopkeepers and tourists talking about the ban).

For residents of Modbury, England, the seabirds that motivated their plastic bag ban were halfway across the world. When Modbury local and nature photographer Rebecca Hosking filmed dead Laysan albatross chicks with “plastic bursting out of their bodies” on the Hawaiian Island of Midway, she returned home to show her footage to fellow residents who quickly agreed on a town-wide ban.

The cost of cleanup

Worrying about the effect of plastic bags in a small, non-coastal British town may seem academic, but blow-away plastic bags are a big problem.

Australia has battled plastic bags since 2002 when the government attempted to cut use in half through voluntary measures, recognizing that about 50 million new bags (49,600,000 according to Australia’s Department of Environment) litter their streets and beaches every year.

John Dee, Founder of Australian environmental group Planet Ark, estimates that on a windy day up to 25,000 plastic bags can be blown off landfills and that one landfill management company employs two to four people at every site just to stop blow-away bags.

“Most landfill managers I have spoken to have said plastic bags are the single worst problem they have to cope with in landfill. They hate them with a passion.”

Blow-away bags also translate to costs to cities for cleanup. Jared Blumenfeld, head of San Francisco’s environment department, told The Economist before the city’s ban would cut city spending and it is not insignificant. The cost of sending a worker to pull bags from trees: $150 per trip.

In defense of plastic

When the city council of Fairfax, California voted to ban plastic bags for their town of 8075 (we have a video showing the town’s sustainability efforts), plastic packaging groups including Emerald Packaging Co. and Fresh Pak Corp. accused the city of failing to perform a full environmental assessment- in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act- before enacting the ban.

Donne Dempsey, managing director of the plastic lobbying group Progressive Bag Alliance argued that the assessment was important to determine the environmental impact of alternatives. He claimed that “the increased use of paper would contribute to deforestation”.

The same issue was raised in the Australian government after the recent proposal for a ban by the Labor government. Environment spokesman for the Opposition, Greg Hunt, argued against any fast decisions, warning, “let’s make sure that we’re not increasing wood-chipping to make paper bags in order to replace plastic bags.”

Paper or plastic

The concern over a shift to paper is justified. Paper isn’t necessarily a more sustainable alternative. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper bag manufacturing generates significantly more air and water pollution than plastic bags. They also take up more space in landfills.

According to the Film and Bag Federation – a part of the Washington, D.C.- based Society of the Plastics Industry- compared with paper, plastic bags consume 40% less energy, generate 80% less solid waste, produce 70% fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94% fewer waterborne wastes.

Choosing paper or plastic may just involve choosing which resource to consume. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the plastic bags used annually in the U.S. require about 12 million barrels of oil to produce. The cost of paper bags: 14 million trees.

Paper nor plastic

While paper bags don’t harm wildlife or litter countrysides in the same way plastics do, they are obviously not a long term solution. Most of the government bans do exempt paper bags, but they also exempt compostable plastic bags.

Compostable bags require composting (they can’t be recycled with petroleum-based plastic bags), but as more cities begin to create food waste pickups- like Seattle’s King County and San Francisco- the bags can be used for food scraps and put in the curbside pickup.

San Francisco’s environment department head Jared Blumenfeld told The Economist that people would do more composting if they had these biodegradable shopping bags to reuse.

Even compostable bags aren’t ideal. Not only are they expensive- they cost retailers 10 cents a piece vs 1 cent for plastic and 5 cents for paper-, but they also require resources for their production (Aseem Das of compostable product company World Centric talked to us in a video about the pros and cons of compostables).

A greener bag

But the bag that has earned the most support as a truly viable alternative to paper and plastic isn’t made from corn, potato, soy or any new technology, but something more retro: the reusable sack.

The Chinese government touts it in a statement announcing their ban: “We should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables.”

Oakland, California city councilwoman Nancy Nadel heralded this option while defending her city’s ban: “I’m confident the people of Oakland will be able to switch to reusable bags.”

Millions of Australians have already made the switch since the government, in 2002, put pressure on supermarkets to voluntarily cut plastic bag use. At just 99 cents each, they have become part of nearly every Australian household; in a country of just 20 million, there are now 10-15 million bags (2005 number).

While the bags are made from a plastic– polypropylene- the chairman of the Clean Up Australia campaign, Ian Kiernan, claimed the bags could be recycled once wearing out (after an estimated 104 shops) and that “every green bag equals 1.2 single-use plastic bags. That’s an estimated 8.3 plastic bags saved every week, or 431 a year.”

A bag for life

In the UK, Marks & Spencer gave out free reusable “bags for life” before beginning to charge customers 5p for them in Northern Ireland stores. The fee worked to change behavior: with the plan, disposable bag use dropped by 66% and now M&S will begin charging for bags in their south-west England stores.

Other UK supermarkets have recognized the need to change. Tesco offers “naked” grocery delivery (a bagless option), Sainsbury’s has bag-free days and Waitrose has “green tills” for those who bring their own bags.

American supermarket chain Whole Foods found resistance to the reuseable bag option until they dropped the price to 99 cents. After finding that most customers made the switch to reusable, and not paper, bags after the plastic ban went into effect in San Francisco (they experienced only a 10% increase in paper use in those stores) they are now going plastic-bag-free in all of their 270 stores internationally.

Riots for reusables: I’m not a plastic bag

While fees for single-use bags have helped create a market for reusable bags, so have Madonna and Keira Knightley. After celebrities were spotted with the Anya Hindmarch cotton bags emblazoned with “I’m not a plastic bag”, they became the must-have item of 2007.

When they went on sale in the UK, 80,000 people lined up to buy a bag. In the US, they sold out at Whole Foods stores within hours and in Taiwan and Hong Kong, their sale inspired a stampede and necessitated the riot police.

This reusable bag is so popular that at one point it was selling for £200 ($400) on eBay. Designer Hindmarch sees this frenzy as good for the environment. “To create awareness you have to create scarcity by producing a limited edition. I hate the idea of making the environment trendy, but you need to make it cool and then it becomes a habit.”

It’s a habit that is gaining ground through both bans and simple public awareness. For Australian retailer Bridget McCosker of Snowy Camping World, bags aren’t forbidden, but they’re not an assumption either. “I’ve found that if I ask my customers if they want a bag, many of them say no – which saves me time and money.”