We all know how environmentalists feel about the distribution of plastic bags, and we have read many reports containing figures about plastic bags. Respected environmentalist authorities such as Tree Hugger, Save Our Shores, and Texas Campaign for the Environment, share facts such as 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed and discarded annually worldwide, and of those, 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year. Figures stating that a single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade but is only used for 12 minutes on average.
We have reported on many of these same figures, from other reliable sources, such as Captain Charles Moore, about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Figures reporting the patch is roughly the size of Texas, or twice the size of Texas, containing approximately 3.5 million tons of trash.
You can pull up endless articles written about the environmental, detrimental effect plastic bags, and plastic waste, have on our environment, and all of these articles contain figures. Different groups report different figures, so exact numbers can get confusing or even out of date. Depending on when the article was written, the figures change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. This is especially true when reporting figures in regards to ocean waste as tides are constantly shifting, and waste is constantly photo degrading.
So is it fair and ethical to report figures to the public that are difficult to verify 100%? If the figures are not 100% accurate, are environmentalists out right lying to us? Are these lies meant to confuse and disrupt our society? Are the numbers being reported by environmentalists really in order to promote recycled reusable shopping bags industries rather than the plastic industry? These are some of the questions and issues plastic companies are taking environmentalists to task with.
Plastic Bag Companies Make A Stand Against Reusable Bags
In 2008, Save The Plastic Bag coalition was formed by Stephen Joseph in response to the 2007 banning of plastic bags in San Francisco, California, the first city in the United States to ban the distribution of single use plastic bags. The premise of this coalition is to prevent other cities from banning plastic bags by challenging the conflicting figures continually being reported by environmentalists, in a court of law, via lawsuits.
STB sued Manhattan Beach, California, for their banning of plastic bags in 2010, but lost the case in 2011 when the California Supreme Court upheld the ban. They have also sued Long Beach, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz and Marin County, California. These other cities are now more optimistic about the outcome of their pending lawsuits based on the Manhattan Beach judgment.
The board members of “Save The Plastic Bag” coalition are mainly manufacturers of plastic bags who most likely sell, supply or distribute plastic bags. Some of the members are Peter M. Grande, Cathy Browne, Louis Certkow, Rick Zirkler, Chandler Hadraba, Tom MacMillan, Stephen L. Joseph, Allied Plastics, Inc., Benchmark Polymers, LLC, Bradley Packaging, Crown Poly, Inc., Elkay Plastics, Co., Inc., Fluid Ink, Grand Packaging, Inc. D/b/a “Command Packaging”, Great American Packaging, Inc., H. Muehlstein & Co., Inc., Hilex Poly Company LLC, Metro Poly Corporation, Montebello Plastics, LLC, PPP, LLC, Ship & Shore Environmental Inc., Sun Plastics, Inc., Symphony Environmental Technologies, PLC.
In cities throughout the US where plastic bag bans are being considered on local levels, full page campaigns are being taken out by plastic manufacturers such as Hilex Poly, challenging claims and figures reported by environmentalists. For instance, if a city campaigns against the distribution of plastic bags, and reports on “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” as part of their convincing argument to the public, and it is found that the “patch” can not be found on Google Earth due to the photosynthesis of plastic, than the plastic industry can sue for misrepresentation of the facts.
The plastic patch may still be the size of Texas, but the plastic is actually the size of a grain of sand, only seen by the eye when strained through a strainer in a jar. Still being consumed by our marine life, but not verifiable on Google Earth. The plastic still does not belong in our oceans.
However, “Save The Plastic Bag” coalition does have a point. Reported figures should be accurate and provable. We should as a society be able to trust authorities when they issue reports we base our decisions and laws on. Exaggerations should be left to stories, not the news. So one of the main tasks STPB would like to force cities to complete, before initiating a ban, is an Environmental Impact Report. These are costly, about $15,000.00, but a thorough analysis of the facts by members of the community.
Environmental Impact Statements In Regards To Reusable Bags
An EIR, or an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), is a product of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, in order to make sure that unbiased, third party research is completed and presented to city council members, and the public, before a vote to pass a bill that affects our environment can occur.
An EIS, or an EIR, is a tool for decision making. It describes the positive and negative environmental effects of a proposed action, and it usually lists one or more alternative actions that may be chosen instead of the action described in the EIS. Whether or not an EIS or an EIR is necessary is determined by city council.
Not all environmental actions require a full EIS. If the action is thought not to cause a significant environmental impact, the agency asking for the action can first prepare a smaller, shorter document called an Environmental Assessment (EA). The finding of the EA determines whether an EIS is required.
If the EA indicates that no significant impact is likely, then the agency can release a “Finding of No Significant Impact” and carry on with the proposed action. Otherwise, the agency must then conduct a full-scale EIS. Most EA’s result in a FONSI.
A limited number of federal actions may avoid the EA and EIS requirements under NEPA if they meet the criteria for a categorical exclusion (CATEX). A CATEX is usually permitted when a course of action is identical or very similar to a past course of action and the impacts on the environment can be assumed to be the same.
The sections of an EIS typically contain the proposed action, a description of the affected environment, a range of alternative actions, and an analysis of each alternative action. They can also include a financial plan and a description of what would happen if no action were to take place. The NEPA process is designed to gather pertinent facts and present them so that decision makers can make informed decisions.
The EIS’s and EIR’s are created by a host of professionals that may include scientists, professionals from the business community, professors, and other experts. These reports can be thousands of pages long, and take years to compile.
Although EIS’s and EIR’s are useful tools of analysis for government officials and the community to base decisions on, environmentalists feel that STPB coalition wants to enforce this action in order to slow down the banning of plastic bags. Environmentalists feel that the long term affects of plastic bag waste in our environment are so obvious and already proven, that the need for an EIS or EIR is a stall tactic. Many small cities will not be able to afford the reports unless they get private donations. They will also not be able to afford the potential lawsuit from pro-plastic coalitions and companies, thus these lawsuits are indeed causing some cities to not move forward with a ban.
Arguments In Favor of Plastic Bags Over Reusable Shopping Bags
STPB and other plastic manufacturers are also touting the benefits of using plastic bags in their campaigns and lawsuits with facts like:
- Plastic bags prevent scalding hot food from burning people that order take out food
- Plastic bags make up only a small percentage of the plastic waste found in streets, sewer systems, rivers and oceans. Plastic bottle caps and cigarette butts make up the majority of trash washed up on shores
- It is not realistic to expect citizens to always carry around their own shopping bag
- The reusable shopping bags handed out by environmentalists are often never seen again, therefore the community is not remembering to use them
- The figures being reported by environmentalists are inflated and unverified
- Single use plastic bags are made in the United States, and the majority of reusable shopping bags are made in China
If we consider the arguments the plastic companies are making above, we can analyze each point, one by one, without an EIR:
- Cloth bags, or plastic reusable shopping bags, will also prevent scalding hot take out food from burning us, and will be used over and over again thus reducing the amount of plastic waste
- Plastic bags may only be part of the plastic waste problem, but a part we can do away with fairly easily without making major changes
- People are capable of change, and even in the most difficult of situations, once the new behavior is established, it is difficult to remember doing it any other way, no matter what the action changed is
- It is totally realistic to believe that people will begin to carry around reusable shopping bags as a matter of course once the behavior has been established
- The figures are confusing, but the figures are most likely not so out of proportion that there still exists an obvious problem of plastic waste
- As reusable shopping bags become more ingrained in our society, the demand for them will raise, and more manufacturing plants will have the opportunity to open up in the United States, along with the entrepreneurs that make and sell them , creating more jobs in the US
One of the topics that the plastic companies are not addressing with these lawsuits are effective ways to recycle the plastic bags that are being distributed. This is because currently, only about 7% of single use plastic bags are being recycled. It is difficult and costly to recycle plastic bags, as opposed to plastic milk jugs and water bottles. According to San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, it costs about $4000.00 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags that can be sold on the commodities market for $32.00. Therefore, not too many recycle companies are interested in collecting, sorting, cleaning and recycling plastic bags.
In fact, many of the plastic bags that are collected today are shipped overseas to China to be recycled. However, in 2008, many of the Chinese plastic recyclers went out of business in the economic down turn, and there are now bales of bags ready to be recycled with no one to recycle them or buy them.
Until our recycling technology can catch up to our use, we can not recycle all of the plastic bags that are being distributed today. Luckily, young scientists are exploring ways to help our environment in chemistry class by looking into ways to biodegrade plastic quicker. Daniel Burd, from Ottawa, Ontario, discovered microorganisms that can rapidly biodegrade plastic while participating in a science contest in 2009. Other young scientists today are busy exploring less expensive ways to biodegrade plastic bags, but nothing has come to market yet.
Reusable Bags Are Just Good, Old Fashioned Common Sense
If we, as public citizens, forget about the figures for now from either side, and use our eyes to look around our own community, and use our own common sense, what would we decide is the best course of action for our planet? What did our great grandmothers use to shop with, before there were ever paper or plastic bags?
They used reusable shopping bags. They sewed their own, out of old clothing and scrap material, or purchased them in stores if they could afford them. I don’t think anyone died from the reusable shopping bags they created and used because they had the common sense to wash them. Reusable shopping bags just make sense.