sense trumps bag bans
There are many reasons why plastic bags may
be considered less harmful than paper bags. They’re made from
recycled materials, are lighter and easier to transport in bulk
and their manufacture releases fewer air pollutants. The missing
conclusion in this otherwise compelling story, however, is making
sure that the vast majority of retail plastic bags are deposited
in recycling bins to become raw material for new product production.
When it comes to plastic shopping bags, radicals
in opposing camps have divided sharply along dogmatic lines.
On one side there are dedicated activists that would like to
see all plastic bags replaced with earth-friendly reusable bags.
On the other are shoppers and industrialists who see plastic
as a convenient, inexpensive solution to one of humankind’s most
perplexing problems: how to carry stuff?
In the middle of the battle, are the pragmatists
who acknowledge the arguments on both sides of the issue and
see regulators as referees. Are more regulations, reporting requirements
and bureaucratic oversight necessary? Will bans lead to enforcement,
including fines? Can the litter and environmental issues associated
with plastic bags be solved intelligently in a free-market through
These are questions facing governments around
the world. By fiat in 2008, China’s Central Council imposed a
nationwide ban on thin plastic bags and taxed thicker ones thereby
relegating its population of over 1.3 billion to carrying buckets,
wicker baskets and sack cloths. Thankfully, the United States
decisions regarding plastic bag and thin films are being freely
made by citizens in local and state jurisdictions.
In South Africa, like China, thin plastic bags are banned and
thicker ones are taxed. Similar approaches have been taken in
Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Australia.
Taxing or charging for plastic bags has also gained ground in
Europe. Other countries and cities around the world are considering
bans and taxes.
Thus far, no American state has banned plastic bags, but California
tried. On August 31, an effort to ban plastic bags statewide
failed to pass the California Senate by a 21 to 14 vote. This
legislation would have banned the distribution of plastic bags
at grocery and other retail stores, allowing only reusable bags
or paper bags to be made available for sale. If it had passed,
California would have been the first state to impose a full ban.
Critics of the defeat attributed it to extensive lobbying by
the retail and plastic bag manufacturing industries.
Since 2007, bans have been enacted in 12 United States jurisdictions
including American Samoa. California has bans in San Francisco,
Malibu, Fairfax and Palo Alto. In Oakland and Manhattan Beach,
California plastic bags were banned, but the courts rejected
the laws because these cities failed to conduct environmental
impact reviews. Two counties in Hawaii have bans as do the cities
of Westport, Connecticut; Edmonds, Washington; Bethel, Arkansas
and North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
In January, Washington, D.C., implemented a $0.05 surcharge on
disposable paper and plastic bags. Many other towns and cities
are considering ban or tax regulations which, in turn, generate
lobbying on both sides of the issue, innumerable lawsuits that
tie up courts and sap the resources of all involved.
Brownsville, Texas imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags this
past January that is scheduled to go into effect in 2011, but
according to a survey conducted in August by the American Chemistry
Council (ACC) the majority residents oppose it. Of 300 adult
residents surveyed, 51 percent wanted to see the bag ban repealed
or postponed, 28 percent supported it and the rest were undecided.
“This survey demonstrates that the City Commission is out of
step with Brownsville voters,” said Rudy Underwood of ACC. “The
citizens of Brownsville clearly oppose banning this valued product
that most people rely on and then reuse in their homes.”
In Seattle a bag tax ordinance was rejected by voters in 2009,
and a variety of other bills being introduced in states, cities
and counties around the country are being increasingly rejected
by legislators due to pressure from voters.
In addition to California, during 2010 plastic bag bans also
failed to pass in Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon,
Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. A ban law was rejected by
Ann Arbor, Michigan. Taxing bags failed to pass in Alaska, California,
Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont,
Virginia and West Virginia. A tax in Baltimore, Maryland was
also rejected. In this economy, even a tax on a plastic bag is
Instead of taxing or banning plastics, shopping bags and other
thin films like newspaper and dry cleaner bags, product wraps
for cases of beverages, and other thin-film polyethylenes, many
jurisdictions have instituted mandatory recycling laws, or implemented
“We see an increasing number of jurisdictions choosing recycling
over taxes and bans. Additionally, this year, we saw an increasing
number of jurisdictions choosing voluntary recycling initiatives
over bag bans or taxes,” said Shari Jackson, director of the
Progressive Bag Affiliates, a self-funded group within the plastics
division of the American Chemistry Council, that works to promote
increased recycling of plastic bags as well as their proper use,
reuse and disposal.
Mandatory bag recycling legislation has already been adopted
by New York, California, Rhode Island and Delaware, as well as
by more than a dozen cities and counties around the country.
In 2010, Florida became the first state to institute a voluntary
recycling program, although a number of major cities in Arizona
had elected that route as have cities in California, Minnesota,
Pennsylvania and Texas, and a county in Illinois and one in Washington.
Whether voluntary or mandatory, the trend appears strongly towards
the free choice of recycling rather than bans or taxes. The reality
is that thin-film polyethylene is here to stay because it is
cost-efficient to make, lightweight, reusable, requires less
energy to transport and is a more sustainable alternative than
paper packaging made from virgin fibers.
And just as it took many decades to develop paper, plastic and
metal recycling programs, it is likely to take time to educate
consumers on recycling polyethylene films. It will not take as
long, however, because the habits and benefits of recycling have
become stronger among consumers. But it will not only take more
education – it will also require segregation of the material
from solid waste and many more highly visible thin-film recycling
bins in communities and retail establishments.
Greater in-store recycling is being driven by regulations and
voluntary initiatives among states, localities and major retailers
like Wal-Mart and Target. The New York State Plastic Bag Reduction,
Reuse and Recycling Law, which went into effect in January, 2009
and applies to all stores with more than 10,000 square feet or
at least 5 locations with more than 5,000 square feet. The law
requires these stores to comply with and set up collection programs
for their customers to recycle plastic carry-out bags and film.
This year, Target implemented a voluntary collection program
for plastic bags and other materials in all of its 1,400 stores
throughout the country. This effort is showing good results.
One company, the Newark Group, has come up with a novel mail-back
program for collecting plastic bags that may be the seed for
a more general solution. “We have not heard of any program like
ours that is specific to retail plastic bags,” said Kathy Hogan
in account services at Newark’s Recycled Products Division.
“We came up with this program to offer to corporations or anyone
else interested in recycling their bags. We are offering communities
an option. We will take the plastic retail bags, dry cleaner
bags, veggie bags, bubble wrap and we will take it however they
can get it to us. Bring it to our facility at no cost, or ship
it to us. We are willing to take it in and recycle it.”
This mail-back program has been in effect for a little over a
year and is being used by over 1,000 retailers, primarily in
New York, Maryland and Illinois, and is showing promising results.
The company’s motives for instituting such a program are economically-driven,
understandable and customer-focused, making this a free-market
solution rather than a mandated one.
The Newark Group is comprised of a network of vertically integrated,
100 percent recycled paperboard operations. Their recovered paper
operations supply all of the recovered paper used in its domestic
paperboard mills and nearly all the needs of its converting operations.
In North America, they operate 11 recovered paper plants, 8 paperboard
mills and 22 converting plants, and handle approximately 2.5
million tons of paper a year.
Johnny Gold, Newark’s senior vice president, explained how the
program developed: “One of the big items we use in making recycled
paperboard is residential mixed paper. No matter what the recycling
programs say to residents, no matter how much due diligence we
do in telling people that plastic bags cannot be in curbside
collections they wind up in our residential paper mix. Our mills
go crazy when they get plastic bags mixed in with the paper.
We were also getting inquiries from our recycled cardboard customers
asking if we had a way to handle their plastic bags, so we came
up with our way to recycle them.”
Newark provides its Plastic Bag Return Program Level 1 Starter
Kit for a minimal cost, which also includes the return UPS shipping
charges. It consists of a heavy-duty cardboard recycling bin
imprinted with the recycling logo and displays recycling information.
The top has a circular opening to deposit plastic bags. It comes
with four, 10 mm clear plastic liners and three pre-paid postage
return cartons. When the bin is full of clean, dry bags, the
liner is removed, the air squeezed out, put into a return carton
and returned to Newark via UPS. A refill kit of four liners and
three return boxes is also available. The average weight for
a returned box is 5.5 pounds. In addition to drop-offs, thus
far the program has recovered more than 2,000 return boxes. It
takes approximately 300 boxes to make a 1,500 pound bale, which
Newark sells to a plastics recycler. Besides the plastic bags,
Newark also recycles the liners and the cardboard return boxes.
Currently Newark has one receiving location Salem, Massachusetts.
Another is being set up in Newark, New Jersey, but the company
is planning to roll out the program nationwide to reduce shipping
costs. Other locations in Dayton, Ohio; Green Bay, Wisconsin;
San Jose and Stockton, California; Mobil, Alabama and Tallahassee,
Florida will handle mail-backs or receive drop-off loads.
“On the baled plastics we are breaking even and sometimes making
up to a penny a pound plus we get the cardboard back in the shipping
box. We are not losing anything. It’s a customer service that
also helps us get more material. More importantly, we are helping
keeping them out of the residential mixed paper stream,” said
Gold. “We do not want to spend the time and labor on a conveyor
line pulling out plastic bags from residential paper.”
Recycling does work and it can work even better. In 2008, more
than 832 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled,
a 28 percent increase since 2005. More significantly, during
this same period the recycling rate for plastic bags and film
doubled to 13 percent. If that recovery rate can be sustained,
or even increased, the environmental issues may be resolved without
the need for outright bans.
Creating a consumer culture for thin-film recycling, mail-back
programs and a greater number of drop-off locations are parts
of the solution to make sure that plastic bags are recycled rather
than become litter. Mail-backs can provide small retailers, schools,
institutions and community organizations, and even households
with a convenient way to collect and recycle plastic bags. Reducing,
reusing and recycling plastic bags, a valuable commodity, can
be done without more of the fourth R, regulations.