Published October 8, 2014 in the Wall Street Journal
Plastic bags are one of the most common items in everyday life. And they are at the heart of a fight raging in municipalities world-wide.
Many cities around the globe have already banned the ubiquitous bags from stores, and activists are pushing for bans elsewhere. They argue that cities must spend vast sums to clean up the bags and the damages caused by them, money that's better spent elsewhere. Not to mention that plastic bags are a blight on the environment, polluting waterways and other natural areas and killing off animals. Banning plastic bags, the activists say, will redirect funds to infrastructure and spur entrepreneurial efforts to come up with alternatives to plastic.
Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tells WSJ's Joe White how mayors can promote green cities and William McDonough, Chairman ofMcDonough Advisors talks about the green buildings that could be contructed to fill them.
But skeptics say that science doesn't support the idea that plastic bags do any genuine harm. They also dispute the idea that there are more practical alternatives to the bags out there. All told, they say, plastic bags end up doing less damage than the substitutes people often turn to—and the benefits that the bags offer far outweigh their cost.
Daniella Dimitrova Russo, co-founder and executive director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, presents the case for bans. Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, makes the opposition argument.
Yes: They're Deadly and Costly
By Daniella Dimitrova Russo
Plastic pollution is the nexus of some of the major environmental challenges facing us today. Discarded plastic bags float in the ocean, they tumble in the desert, they are found in riverbeds and dams. They kill off marine animals that confuse the bags with plankton and jellyfish; they end up calcified in the stomachs of animals on land.
But the greatest damage is economic—the cost of cleaning up all that waste. That's why dozens of countries and cities around the world, including 47 municipalities in California alone, have adopted ordinances banning plastic bags.
Communities don't have much of a choice if they leave things as they are: They either drown in plastic bags or spend millions of dollars to clean up the mess—tax dollars that should go toward infrastructure, education and libraries.
San Jose, Calif., reports that it costs about $1 million a year to repair recycling equipment jammed with plastic bags San Francisco estimates that to clean up, recycle and landfill plastic bags costs as much as 17 cents a bag, or approximately $8.5 million a year.
Elsewhere in the world, Bangladesh banned plastic bags because they clog storm-drain systems and cause major flooding, which in turn has significant economic cost. Ireland's PlasTax was prompted by the cost of litter. The United Arab Emirates plans to eliminate the use of conventional plastic bags by 2013.
There's also a cost on the consumer end. Grocery stores embed 2 cents to 5 cents per plastic bag in the cost of food. A ban would save approximately $18 to $30 per person annually.
Why not explore options besides a ban? In many cases, those options don't work. Efforts to increase bag recycling with take-back programs, for instance, have shown minimal success to date. Since 2007, the state of California has been working on an in-store program to recycle bags, and there is no conclusive evidence that it has been successful.
Market-based solutions—such as asking people to pay for plastic bags at checkout—have been effective in Washington, D.C., and Ireland. But those strategies have sometimes been blocked by the legislative efforts of ban opponents. Until recently, for example, a California law prohibited the state from charging a fee for plastic bags.
Of course, ban opponents dispute the impact that plastic bags have on the environment. One line of argument is to diminish the effect that the bags have on marine life.
They argue that other types of waste, such as discarded fishing gear, also kill fish, so why focus on plastic bags? Other waste does certainly harm fish and should be addressed. But plastic bags kill just as many, and their broader impact on the environment and the economy makes them a much more urgent concern.
What's more, when talking about pollution, critics often don't take into account the whole environmental impact of bags, including the energy used to manufacture and dispose of them. And they often rely on heavily flawed estimates of how many bags end up as pollution.
For instance, many studies overlook a simple but crucial fact: Bags break down into smaller pieces. They're not technically "bags"—and aren't counted as such—but are still pollutants. In other cases, studies understate the impact of plastic bags because they don't account for the weight or volume of the bags; they simply tally up how many bags are out there and compare the total to other types of garbage.
As for the idea that people reuse bags instead of bringing them to take-back days, statistics show most bags are simply discarded. Over the past 25 years, plastic bags have been one of the top items collected on International Coastal Cleanup Day. That also calls into question another argument critics make—that plastic bags make up a tiny fraction of pollution on beaches.
A Necessary Step
Bans are often considered a massive government invasion into private business. But with plastic bags, we are dealing with a product that has an inherent design flaw. The bags are lightweight, aerodynamic, practically indestructible and made specifically to be discarded. An invasion into private business is often warranted when a product is causing significant economic and environmental damage on a massive scale—and must be replaced with something safe.
There is no denying that the ubiquitous plastic bag serves many purposes, but it is not irreplaceable. With a ban on disposable plastic bags, consumer demand will shift toward alternatives, and new opportunities will begin to emerge for entrepreneurs.
Companies that manufacture reusable bags will continue to grow and diversify their product lines, and will create more green jobs. The sale of reusable bags will also generate sales-tax revenue—unlike the disposable bags, which are given away.
Citizens of China, Mexico, India and countries throughout Africa and Europe shop without single-use bags. It is time we join them and spend our tax dollars on schools, roads and firefighters—not cleaning up the plastic industry's mess.
Ms. Russo is co-founder and executive director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No: The Harm Is Overblown
By Todd Myers
Across the world, cities are joining the latest environmental fad—banning plastic grocery bags. Activists think banning the bags is a simple and environmentally responsible approach.
But there's no evidence that banning bags helps the environment—and plenty of evidence that it may actually hurt. Bans yield little benefit to wildlife while increasing carbon emissions and other unhealthy environmental effects.
Little Harm to Wildlife
Let's go through the arguments for banning bags. Ban backers cite impacts on marine life, but they consistently sidestep the actual data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for one, says there are currently no published studies about how many marine mammals die because of marine debris.
Meanwhile, other sources of marine debris, such as discarded fishing gear, are recognized as a danger to sea life. Why the frenzy over one source—plastic bags—in the absence of evidence?
As for the pollution caused by plastic bags, consider a study by Ospar, the European organization working to protect the marine environment. The study found plastic shopping bags represented less than 3% of marine litter on European beaches, a figure that includes scraps of plastic from shredded bags.
Meanwhile, the claim that municipalities spend a substantial amount of their trash budget, let alone millions of dollars, on picking up plastic bags is hard to believe. In many cases, these claims are guesses by advocates instead of data based on actual studies, and cost is often thrown in as a justification after bans are enacted for political reasons.
For some perspective, consider: Cities like San Francisco and Toronto have found that less than 1% of their litter consists of plastic bags. As a further point of reference, in Washington state, an average-size state, the state budget for all litter cleanup is about $7 million.
Some ban supporters claim plastics harm human health, even when studies from organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Pacific Northwest National Labs show these claims are false or exaggerated.
Consider a study from the U.K. Environment Agency that found plastic grocery bags have the lowest environmental impact in "human toxicity" and "marine aquatic toxicity" as well as "global-warming potential" even after paper bags are used four times and reusable cotton bags are used 173 times. Why? Largely because paper and cotton bags come from crops that require fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and the like.
Critics also say that ban opponents ignore the environmental impact of bags over the course of their lifetime. But many studies do just that. The U.K. Environment Agency's study, for instance, compared the energy expended in creating, using and disposing of plastic, paper and reusable bags to arrive at its figures.
Consumers would have to use a cotton bag 173 times before they match the energy savings of one plastic bag, assuming 40% of bags are reused—a percentage that's actually lower than the rate in some cities.
Some critics say we need to ban bags because voluntary take-back programs don't work. But the point of the programs is simply to reuse bags, and consumers already reuse bags to hold garbage or pick up after pets.
As for the idea that plastic bags cost consumers more, the reason grocery stores use plastic instead of paper or other bags is that they cost less and hold more. Reusable bags are even more expensive.
Let's Be Honest
This doesn't mean plastic bags have no impact. When determining the environmental costs and benefits, however, we need to be honest about the science and the trade-offs. In the end, communities need to seek the greatest environmental benefit for their time and resources.
When Seattle considered its first bag ban, politicians touted the benefits, including reductions in energy and water use. The claims ignored the use of substituted bags, thus making the projections extremely favorable toward the ban.
Even with those skewed numbers, my estimates show a saving of $278,452 worth of carbon emissions and water for a cost of $10 million to consumers. Somehow spending $100 to receive $3 in environmental benefit is supposed to be smart policy.
Weighing the costs and benefits makes it clear that banning plastic bags yields little benefit at very high cost.
Unfortunately, the political symbolism of banning the bags is powerful. It is often easier to ignore the science that indicates such bans may actually harm the environment than to make an honest effort to weigh these issues. All of this is why plastic-bag bans are more about environmental image than environmental benefit.
Mr. Myers is environmental director at the Washington Policy Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.