Editor’s note: Plastic bag pollution problems are global. While this article was written to support a ban in California, U.S.A., the facts shared here are worth consideration in exploring solutions to this global environmental–health issue.
Learn the truth about plastic bag bans and why Californians should vote “YES” on Proposition 67 to uphold the statewide plastic bag ban in the November 2016 general election. Big Plastic shares misinformation claiming the ban would actually hurt the environment. However, Big Plastic’s claims on recycling, reusing, and the economic and environmental impact can be undermined by research and data! See the truth to each of Big Plastic’s claims below.
CLAIM: Plastic bags are a more environmentally-friendly option at the checkout than alternatives like paper and so-called “reusable” bags.
TRUTH: Plastic bags are not the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout since they are not biodegradable or compostable!
A huge problem with plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other plastic materials is that they can take decades or centuries to degrade. Essentially, they’re with us in the environment forever. Some plastics manufacturers claim their products are biodegradable, but testing and real world experience have yet to bear this out.
With 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our ocean, plastic marine litter is one of the most pervasive and menacing problems affecting the marine environment. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It may photodegrade over time and break into small pieces, but it never goes away. Marine animals eat it and become sick or die. It also entangles and injures them, making it difficult to swim or fly. Unknown numbers of animals die this way each year while the impacts of marine debris have been reported for663 marine wildlife species.
There has been a rash of news stories lately talking about disposable plastic bags being the best choice for the environment because of their small carbon footprint. Those stories gloss over the impacts to wildlife and blight from plastic bag litter while failing to note that plastic bag manufacturers are already making reusable bags from recycled plastic. While we prefer a recycled cloth bag and use it hundreds of times, those bags made from the recycled plastic have the lowest carbon footprint while being most affordable over time.
CLAIM: The rate of plastic bag recycling increases each year with help from America’s plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry and thousands of recycling drop-off locations across the country.
TRUTH: Sadly, plastic bag recycling rate increases are not notable improvements. And even if they were, recycling is not a viable solution because few places accept plastic bags in their curbside service.
According to the City of San Diego, “Recycled bags have little value, and when collected in comingled programs they get badly contaminated, decreasing their value further. There are virtually no markets in the U.S. for curbside recovered plastic bags. A bigger problem with collecting plastic bags curbside is that they get wound up in the collection and processing equipment, requiring maintenance that costs money and time, and creates inefficiencies for processing all the recyclables.
CLAIM: Nearly 90 percent of Americans reuse plastic bags. Are you one of them?
TRUTH: The low recycling rate for plastic bags indicates that 90% or more of the plastic grocery bags used eventually end up as litter or in the landfill, regardless of whether some are used more than once.
CLAIM: “Reusable” bags that haven’t been washed can harbor food-borne bacteria that may be harmful to your family’s health.
TRUTH: Common sense and good hygiene by cleaning a reusable bag after carrying meat or fish will protect one’s family from food-borne bacteria.
But there has been no evidence that reusable bags make you sick. Scare tactics should not discourage people from using reusable bags. One claim that reusable bags could pose health risks wasdebunked by Consumer Reports. The study that caused the media stir was based on a small sample of 84 bags. While some bags did have bacteria, none were harmful strains, “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study.”
Jobs and Economy
CLAIM: Money from charging a fee for bags makes grocers rich!
TRUTH: It is plastic bag makers who earn hundreds of millions of dollars from selling singleuse plastic bags (about $1.2 billion of the $374 billion American plastics market).
Grocers currently provide bags for free, but that cost is passed along to consumers: Grocery stores currently embed 2 to 5 cents per plastic bag and 5 to 23 cents per paper bag into food prices. Plastic bag litter also costs consumers as taxes for cleanup. SB 270 allows consumers to avoid these increased food and cleanup costs by choosing to bring a reusable bag. If a consumer pays for a paper bag, grocers only get reimbursed the reasonable cost of the bag.
CLAIM: Money from charging a fee for bags should go instead to recycling education or litter prevention.
TRUTH: California’s Proposition 26 prevents money charged for bags from going to government programs.
Consequently, SB 270, like many of the over 100 other ordinances in CA, was structured to avoid Prop 26 challenges by giving the grocers back the reasonable cost of the bag (a bag that they are currently providing for free.) The CA Appellate Court has already upheld that the 10 cent bag fee proposed in SB 270 is reasonable, entirely legal, and not in violation of Prop 26. (See 153 Cal. Rptr. 3d 352, 36466. (Ct. App. 2013). Note that the Supreme Court has denied review of this case, so the appellate decision stands.)
CLAIM: Banning plastic retail bags will cost 2000 California jobs.
TRUTH: The largest single-use bag manufacturers in California, totaling 750 jobs, make other products as well.
This includes produce bags and film reusable bags that can still be sold in CA under the new law. Moreover, most of the singleuse bags made in California are sold outside of California, and this production would be unaffected by SB 270’s ban. (LA City Council documents, April 4, 2012. See also testimony before the Los Angeles City Board of Public Works, October 12, 2012 at http://bpw.lacity.org/recordings.html – beginning at approximately 1 hour, 16 minutes into the meeting.)
CLAIM: Banning plastic bags will not create California jobs.
TRUTH: As more local bag bans are adopted, California has become home to the largest number of reusable bag manufacturers in the US.
Banning plastic bags under SB 270 will create the opportunity to increase these green, sustainable and CA based jobs.
CLAIM: A ban on plastic retail bags will negatively impact the lives of Californians who will now have to pay a bag tax.
TRUTH: Right now, Californians are paying for the cost of bags embedded in the price of food, as well as for costs for plastic bag and other litter cleanup.
That is money down the drain that could otherwise be invested in public services like schools, firefighters, police, or improving public parks and other open spaces. Plastic bags even hinder municipal recycling by becoming caught in recycling processing equipment, causing recycling sort lines to go offline while waiting for plastic bags to be removed from mechanical gears.
CLAIM: Banning plastic retail bags will hurt California retailers or small businesses
TRUTH: Businesses have not suffered as a result of implementation of bans and a statewide ban will create a level playing field for businesses with bans in 140+ different jurisdictions throughout the state.
Moreover, even though industry cites to small, nonscientific surveys in Seattle and Los Angeles County, these surveys do not represent the experience of dozens of local bag bans that have been in place since the mid 2000s (the low response rates of these industry surveys invalidate claims that negative business impacts are widely occurring). If increased thefts were happening in the majority of stores (and not just one Seattle store), grocers and retailers would oppose these policies.
Additionally, plastic bag manufacturers have spent $5.96 million toward repealing the ban as of June 2016. According to the California Secretary of State, 99 percent of the contributions are from out-of-state to the inappropriately named “American Progressive Bag Alliance.” The largest donor is Hilex Poly (also known as Novolex), a South Carolina-based company, which is owned by Wind Point Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm. It has contributed $2.78 million, in addition to continuing to hire Sacramento lobbyists. Interestingly, the company also announced last week that it has begun the manufacturing of paper bags with 100% recycled content and has purchased several paper bag companies.
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