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Paul A. London

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Plastic Bags and the Environment

Posted: 07/14/11 11:19 PM ET

Environmentalists are often attacked from the political right for favoring too much regulation even though most Americans agree with their larger objectives. Given these attacks from the right it behooves those of us who want to clean up the air and water to think carefully before pushing regulatory initiatives that are not clearly beneficial. So today's question is will bans on plastic grocery bags really improve the environment?

An objective look at the "plastic bags" issue suggests that attempts to ban plastic grocery bags in several cities and states are not likely to achieve positive environmental objectives. Oregon was the most recent battleground in an ongoing effort by some groups to ban plastic bags and tax paper ones. The premise of the Oregon bill and similar ones in other cities and states is simple: get rid of plastic bags to combat litter and foster a cleaner environment. The fact is, however, that these proposals don't do what they are meant to do, and are counter-productive for several reasons.

One of the goals of such bans and taxes is to drive consumers to use so-called 'reusable' bags -- either plastic or cloth bags. Both have serious downsides. One is that reusable plastic and cloth bags must be used repeatedly -- literally hundreds of times -- for their carbon footprint to be less than that of much lighter-weight plastic bags.

Another downside to bans and taxes is that plastic grocery bags are usually reused. Nine out of ten people according to market surveys reuse these bags, and I am one of them. The District of Columbia where I live makes shoppers pay for plastic bags. I usually do so rather than use the heavy duty cloth bags I have in the car because we need the plastic grocery bags for our trash. For decades, we have reused grocery bags to line the garbage rack under our kitchen sink and the waste baskets in the rest of the house. If I did not get these light-weight bags with my groceries I would have to buy heavier gauge plastics for household uses. There is no environmental gain in that trade-off.

I also have neighbors who reuse grocery bags and bags in which newspapers are delivered to clean up after their pets. I did that too when we had a dog. Reuse makes sense and most people do it without being fined or hectored. Without free, reusable, plastic grocery bags, current re-users like myself would likely end up paying for other plastics bags, which we would use only once. After Ireland implemented a bag tax, for example, consumption of purchased plastic trash bags increased by 400 percent.

Bans and taxes that target plastic grocery bags also miss the larger issue of litter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says these grocery bags make up less than 0.5 percent of the litter stream, and accelerated recycling efforts evidenced by a growing number of collection points are reducing that impact. Junk food wrappers, cigarette butts and paper, on the other hand, all make up bigger portions of litter, and other products like discarded fishing line and nets as well as plastic bottle carriers are far more dangerous to marine mammals. So it is hard to understand why plastic grocery bags have become a special target.

Addressing the problem of litter and ocean pollution requires more than just banning one product. It requires more recycling, the development of alternatives to more problematic products, and better education. Many states including Florida, Delaware, and New York and cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Tucson have recycling programs and others are considering them. Recycling has grown rapidly over the last decade and makes good economic sense.

Another misperception is that a tax on plastic bags can make a significant contribution to state coffers. Even if bag taxes were to generate modest revenue, taxes like bans on these bags put a dent in growing green jobs created through the plastic bag recycling industry. Used bags are in demand because they are being utilized to create new products like furniture, decking, and new bags. Putting the brakes on this small but growing green job sector can't be good for the economy anymore than it is good for the environment.

Plastic bag bans and taxes are irritating without being effective. They increase the carbon footprint and fail to address litter and more serious dangers to marine mammals. Jumping on the ban-the-bags bandwagon gives ammunition to anti-government zealots because it adds to the impression that environmentalists are in love with telling people what to do and what not to do even when it makes no practical sense.

Disclosure: This post is based on work I have done for Edelman Public Relations and the plastic bags industry.