Before we ban them, here are some facts about plastic bags

I was going to write a long and witty blog about this last night, but I had too much fun instead.

I wish I could attend the Public Works Committee meeting to speak against the ordinance, but instead I have to work. Undoubtedly, the press will mindlessly swallow Nancy Nadel’s and Jean Quan’s inane ramblings and regurgitate them without scrutiny. However, for those among the community with even a slight inclination towards critical thought, here are some things to consider. I apologize for the lack of links and such. I will try to update this with them later as time allows.

The report is a collection of half-truths and distortions. None of the arguments presented for banning plastic shopping bags stand up to inspection. Here are several reasons the Committee should reject this legislation.

  • The City’s ban on styrofoam carryout containers has been a complete failure, and is openly flouted in coffee shops and restaurants throughout the City. When the Council continues to pass laws that they do not and cannot enforce, respect for both the Council’s authority and the law as a whole is degraded.
  • The report repeatedly asserts that plastic bags must be banned because there are no meaningful recycling opportunities for them. In less than a week, a state law will go into effect creating mandatory plastic bag recycling programs at all major supermarkets. The argument will no longer be true.
  • Paper bags are far worse for the environment than plastic bags. According to a source cited in the report, paper bags require 5 times more energy to produce than plastic bags, 84 times more energy to recycle than plastic bags, and generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, and do not biodegrade at a faster rate than plastic. Why does the ordinance continue to permit them when they are so much more harmful? This ordinance will ultimately harm the environment by encouraging the use of paper bags.
  • The report argues that plastic bags should be banned because they produce litter. The notion that a product should be banned in the city because it could potentially create litter sets an absurd precedent. Furthermore, there is no evidence that plastic bags are a major contributor to our litter problem. In the recently completed San Francisco litter audit, plastic retail bags were found to comprise only 0.6% of litter. In contrast, paper towels and napkins represented 13% of litter. Why are we not banning them instead?
  • The report asserts that the ban is necessary because 80% of marine debris is plastic. But the study it cites to back up the claim does not identify plastic bags as a significant source of marine debris. Plastic forks and cups, plastic bottle caps, and plastic drinking bottles are identified as the major problems. Should we ban them too?
  • The report disingenuously implies that Ireland has achieved a 90% decrease in the use of plastic bags by banning them. This is untrue. The Republic of Ireland has not banned plastic bags. They have instituted a tax and a consumer education campaign. Australia achieved a dramatic reduction in plastic bag consumption by partnering with retailers to create a voluntary reduction and consumer education campaign. This proposal is not, as suggested by the deceptive line, an imitation of policies that have been proven to work, when we’re actually just copy-catting San Francisco’s experimental legislation?
  • Banning plastic bags places an unfair burden on pedestrians and bus riders. Paper bags break easily and are therefore not suitable for carrying any significant distance. How can this legislation claim to be promoting reduced fossil fuel consumption when in reality it is making it more difficult for people to shop without using their cars?

Most important, Oakland is a city with real problems that the Council needs to be addressing. We do not need our elected officials passing arbitrary legislation that simply sounds nice while having zero positive impacts for the people who live here.

11 thoughts on “Before we ban them, here are some facts about plastic bags

  1. Tracey Saxby

    Hey V Smooth, I can’t say anything about Oakland or their policies, or the reasons that they’re deciding to go plastic free, but I’ve been doing a lot of research on plastic bags and compiled some plastic-bag facts that you might be interested in.

    Recycling plastic bags isn’t a longterm solution. It’s not viable economically (the market value for 1 tonne of plastic bags is $55, and you need to collect, store, transport, and then process 150,000 bags to make one tonne. So the costs far outweigh the benefits.) Once the bags are recycled, they’re turned into products such as plastic lumber and are not recycled again. So it’s really a one-way street, and ideally we should be thinking about the ‘reduce’ part of the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra. That comes first. :)

    I agree that switching to paper bags is not viable, and in fact, worse environmentally. Biodegradable bags aren’t much better. The solution that a lot of communities are encouraging are re-usable cloth bags that you bring to the store with you. This is what has happened in Australia. Everyone brings their own bags. It takes a little while to change your habits, but once you’ve made the decision to do it, it’s easy.

    While plastic bags may not comprise much of the litter stream, they have been targeted as a focal point to start reducing our waste in general. The typical plastic bag gets used once for 5 minutes, and is then discarded. They can take up to 1000 years to break down. Is this really a good use of our resources? Every time you go to the supermarket, the plastic bag you don’t even think about taking will be on this planet long after you’re dead. In fact, every single piece of plastic ever created is still in existence. From my research, plastic bags are the twelfth most common item of debris collected in marine cleanups. And it is in the oceans where they cause the most problems. It is estimated that plastic bags kill up to 1 million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals and turtles, and countless fish each year. Birds get entangled in them, and whales and turtles mistake them for jellyfish, so they eat them. It takes 6 plastic bags to kill a loggerhead turtle.

    And yes, we should seriously be thinking about all of those disposable items that we use every day. Do we really need them? No. Are there alternatives? Yes. Sit down and drink your coffee at the coffee shop, or bring a re-usable mug with you. Refuse plastic drinking bottles (there are a whole other set of reasons to refuse to buy water, but that’s another story.) Think about everything you use just once and then discard. This isn’t sustainable long term. And it’s really not that hard once you start thinking about it.

    As for shopping without a car, that’s easy. Forget paper bags. If you bring your own cloth bags to the store, whether it’s a backpack, or a hemp, silk (crumples into your pocket), polyfabric, or cotton tote bag, it is wayyyy more comfortable to carry your groceries home this way than in several plastic bags that cut into your hands. I’d also like to make the point that plastic bags also break and tear. :)

    There’s more info on our website, http://www.greenerfootprints.com, and I’m in the middle of updating it to add even more. Anyways, would love to know your thoughts, and whether reusable bags sound like a feasible alternative. They make sense to me.

    T

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Tracy,

    I am well aware of the benefits of reusable canvas bags, and shop almost exclusively with them myself. It is hardly necessary or appropriate for you to use my blog as a lengthy advertisement for your website if you have nothing productive to contribute.

    In your haste to spew propaganda, you have apparently neglected to read the post you commented on. My point is that this legislation will not serve to effectively decrease waste or energy consumption in Oakland, not that I love plastic bags. By banning plastic bags but not paper, which are far worse for the environment, it will actually have an overall negative environmental impact on the city.

    A FAQ sheet attached to the staff report explicitly rejects the suggestion of a consumer education campaign (as was so effective in Australia) promoting reusable bags, claiming that it will not be effective at changing behavior.

    One further point about the utility of plastic bags. When I go grocery shopping, I carry my reusable “Support the Oakland Public Library” bag with me for all my purchases. I do not use the wasteful produce bags (which are not prohibited under the ordinance). But when I buy meat, I always take a plastic bag for it, so that it will not contaminate my other products. This is Food Safety 101. Should this legislation pass, my butcher shop will be forbidden from providing me a bag that will isolate and control potential bacteria present in the raw meat. Meanwhile, people who buy their nasty CAFO meat at Safeway in those saran wrapped foam trays will face no inconveniences and will have no incentive to change their habits. Is this well-thought out public policy?

  3. Pingback: A Better Oakland » Larry Reid gets it. Pat Kernighan, Jean Quan, and Nancy Nadel? Not so much.

  4. Julieun

    Plastic was created to save trees and it can be recycled back to make other products besides plastic lumber. People who don’t have the facts should not be commenting.

    Recycled plastic is also used to make more than just lumbar products like recycled plastic bags. GO BEYOND the canvas bags that will eventually end in the landfill after it gets worn. Instead why not a REUSABLE PLASTIC BAN that gets recycled back to make a clean reusable bag (RECYCLED over and over again – here’s a great thought).

    If the bans continue, more trees will be killed to make paper and more green house gas emmissions will rise – that is not the better choice. Instead of addressing the litter and waste problem, they want to ban plastic – t’s an easy way out for politicians who refuse to look at the facts. This will cause retailers and markets to buy paper, causing more pollution and more waste. Paper consumes more landfill space than plastic. Banning plastic will not curb the landfill problem – with more paper consumption, the landfill waste will increase. Paper waste continues to increase year over year. The last EPA report showed that paper products took up the most percentage of the landfill mass at over 34%. Plastic products combined (including bottle water containers) takes up 11% of landfill mass and of that less than 5% plastic bags (combined – including garbage bags, plastic wraps, sandwich bags…).

    You can download the Environmental Protection Agency Report at: http://www.epa.gov/msw/pubs/mswchar05.pdf

  5. madman

    i am mad!!!!!!!!!! i am mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you are mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!this blog is mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    plastic is mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! we are all mad!!!!!!!!!! i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic i hate plastic !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i am mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Hmm, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps Madman does not like plastic… and that he/she is “mad”. Or maybe someone just has a case of the Mondays.

  7. dijah b~ball

    when you go to the store please get paper bag so mad man want be mad any more

  8. Jason Vingless

    i happen to work at Hilex Poly. we make plastic bags. if they do ban this do you realize how many American jobs will be lost? this adding to the already altime high of unemployment rate ! the facts are plastic bags can be remade into more plastic bags we happen to do this at our plant. as for killing all these marine animals etc… that was proven to be a lie to make the plastic bag look bad look at the facts it was the plastic six pack holder with the six cirlcles on it that was responsilbe for this. i need my job please support the use of plastic bags and be smart about it and reclycle and reuse your bags !

  9. Patrick

    What we should really do is place an over-the-top tax (say, 5 bucks) on each plastic (and paper) bag. Refundable when returned for recycling, of course. This is the only method that will work, as fewer than 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling currently.

    .