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Why The Bag Backlash?

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When I was asked to speak at something called BagFest at Indiana University South Bend, last week, I was initially skeptical. Why did we need a festival to collect bags for recycling, and what good did recycling them do, in the larger scheme of troubling environmental problems? But when I walked into the cafeteria and saw the ten-foot - and growing fast - mountain of plastic, I had a change of heart. This was the grassroots in action.

Children happily jumped and played in the bags, the Girl Scouts counted sacks as fast as they could, a local band strummed, and students handed out cookies. There was even a Step It Up 2007 booth, for added eco-value. I didn't know a soul there, but the community spirit ran thick. Unfortunately, it lasted only until I saw the truck parked outside: an eighteen-wheeler from Wal-Mart.

Plastic bags are getting a lot of press lately. There was San Francisco's recent decision to ban non-biodegradable bags at large supermarkets and drug stores, then Ikea's move to charge for disposable bags and their reusables. In the first month the store cut use by 80 percent.

Why the bag backlash?

Because we're starting to take global warming seriously. Bags are made from oil: it takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags, and the U.S. goes through 380 billion of them a year. A statistics class at Indiana U did the math: more than 1.6 billion gallons of oil are used each year for bags alone. That was the front end, but bags are bad news on the back end too, the kids learned. They clog drains, snag in trees, and choke wildlife on land and at sea. In landfills, plastic bags take up very little space, but in an incinerator they generate small but potent amounts of dioxin, a carcinogen, and carbon dioxide, a you-know-what.

We were gathered there in the name of statistics. Professor Michelle Verges wanted something real for her students to count, and she began investigating how many bags were out there. But then what? She couldn't send those bags home or put them in the trash. Instead she put together a panel on plastic bag recycling, got funding from Wal-Mart, and invited me to talk about my adventures in trash, which I'd chronicled in Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash and which Verges had used in class.

We learned from the panel that nationally, Wal-Mart has recycled 57 million pounds of plastic bags. Recycling was part of the retail giant's sustainability portfolio, which also includes reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, buying renewable energy, and phasing out its use of PVC packaging. The company should be applauded for these initiatives, but let's not forget they also save Wal-Mart heaps of money, and they are great p.r. for a company that has taken some hits.

The plastic, we learned, was headed for a processor in Ohio, and would eventually be washed, shredded, and extruded into plastic lumber. It could also be made into plastic totes and food containers - all things sold by Wal-Mart. "We're closing the loop," said Jeff Ashby, of Rocky Mountain Recycling, the company that handled Wal-Mart's bags.

It sure sounded good. But turning plastic bags into food containers and lumber isn't really closing the loop. It is unlikely that these goods, even if they are stamped with chasing arrows, are going to be recycled again. At the end of their useful life, they'll be headed straight for the dump. (The most widely collected type of plastic in this country is narrow-necked bottles marked #1 and #2, which are usually transformed into sleeping-bag filling, carpeting, and textiles: stuff that will, when its useful days are over, be trashed.)

In just four hours, BagFest collected 72,440 bags, all of which Wal-Mart would sell to Rocky Mountain Recycling. Last year, Wal-Mart made $10 million on the bag trade. As I watched students stuff loose sacks into larger sacks and cart them out to the waiting truck, a store associate told me the mound was equivalent to what one Wal-Mart Superstore went through in a month. He also noted that new bags cost them more than they made selling the old. Which got me thinking.

The 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) are a hierarchy: given a choice, reducing consumption is better for the environment than reusing what's already out there, which is in turn better than recycling. All three, of course, are better than the default position, which is wasting. I asked Steve Antonetti, marketing manager for Wal-Mart in northern Indiana, if instead of recycling the bags the store could reduce their use, either by charging customers per bag, a la Ikea, or asking if they really needed one, instead of instantly whipping them out. Or maybe the store's checkout clerks could reuse the bags that customers were already bringing in?

Antonetti hemmed and hawed, said something about interrupting the checkout flow. Then the young associate jumped in. "That wouldn't really convey the right impression," he said, "walking through the parking lot with an old and wrinkled bag." Before I could point out that this was the attitude that helped Americans generate 388 million tons of waste in 2004, he offered the coup de grace. "Especially when the bags say Target."