Thursday, July 26, 2007


Paper, or plastic?

There've been a number of rules and regulations and ordinances passed, around the country, aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags in favour of paper ones. Earlier this year, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance that applies only to larger stores. Most recently, the New York Times tells us about a bill in Annapolis, Maryland, that, if it passes, would ban plastic bags from all retail stores.

The stated aim of the Annapolis law is different from most, in that it's not targeting trash for trash's sake, but is trying to protect the wildlife that winds up being killed by the discarded bags:

Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau and director of EarthEcho, an environmental education group in Washington, said, “Banning plastic makes sense for the simple reason that it takes more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, which means that every single piece of plastic we’ve ever manufactured is still around, and much of it ends up in the oceans killing animals.”


The bill aims to help protect Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, whose fish and birds often die after ingesting discarded plastic bags. Stores would be required to offer paper bags made from recycled material under the bill, which goes to a final City Council vote in October.

There is, of course, resistance to the bill. You can read the article for all the details; what I want to point out here are a few things that always seem to make the objections to these sorts of bans seem hollow and self-serving.

Let's look at the objections that this article highlights:

Critics say the ban would be expensive and counterproductive.

“It sounds good until you consider the cost,” said Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food, the grocery chain based in Landover, Md.


Jeffrie Zellmer, legislative director of the Maryland Retailers Association, said it took far less energy to recycle plastic than to recycle paper.


At the hearing, a lobbyist for Safeway called the bill un-American, saying it would take choices away from consumers.

The first thing I notice, in every plastic-vs-paper article I see, is that every objection comes from someone associated with the retailers who use the plastic bags. Look above: objections from two supermarket chains and a retailers' association. They may try to claim that it's not really environmentally preferable to use paper — as the energy-to-recycle comment above does — but I have never seen an environmental organization support that argument. I have never seen any environmental organization support any argument for continuing to use plastic bags.

There is an cost issue, which isn't really disputed today: today, plastic bags are cheaper than paper ones. But let's look at one of the arguments, which uses that fact:

Instead of taking away plastic bags, which cost 2 cents each compared with 5 cents for paper bags, Annapolis should enforce its litter laws, Mr. Scher said.

He added that Giant already offered a 3-cent credit for every plastic bag that customers return to the store and that 2,200 tons of bags a year were recycled and turned into backyard decks and park benches.

In the article, that's followed by a statistic that only 1% of plastic bags are recycled, so the claim that recycling offsets the problem is not compelling. But there's more that's wrong with this argument; let's do the math in Mr Sher's statement:

If a plastic bag costs 2 cents, and Giant will give a customer a 3-cent credit for bringing one back, their cost for a plastic bag that's returned is 5 cents — the same as their cost for a paper bag. So from a cost point of view, if everyone brought back their bags, plastic would cost Giant the same as paper. It's clear, therefore, that they rely on the fact that most people do not recycle the bags, and at the same time they use bogus claims of widespread recycling to support their interest in continuing to use plastic.

They're talking out of both sides of their mouths, and we just have to see through that.

Finally, Safeway's objection shows the last stage of desperation. It's quoted above, but I'll repeat it here:

At the hearing, a lobbyist for Safeway called the bill un-American, saying it would take choices away from consumers.
Un-American, yes, indeed. Whenever someone calls something “un-American”, they are grasping at straws, using a non-argument of last resort. They have no legitimate case, so they tell us that, well, it's just un-American!

Cow twaddle. And if we forget the hype for the moment, and just look at the question of choice, the reality is that we have no choice now. Most retailers don't give consumers any choice — plastic is all that's available. In the stores where paper is an option (such as in most supermarkets in my area), the use of plastic is so automatic that it's hard to get paper unless you're quick, and often they will stick the paper bag inside a plastic one (or throw the plastic that they started to use into the garbage).

Switching back to paper bags is environmentally sound in every way. That's as “American” as it gets. And better still, bring your own permanent bag. That's what I do.


Dr. Momentum said...

I appreciate plastic bags because I find them very useful. I stuff a bunch of them in my car (in another plastic bag) and use them to pick up trash off the trail when my girls and I are out hiking, for example.

Many geocache areas are also areas that teens visit at night and distribute trash. In geocachine we have a saying "cache in, trash out." Because of the ubiquity of plastic bags, I nearly always have a shopping bag handy on the trail for serendipitous cleanups.

Paper bags would be much less convenient for this purpose.

I have tried to switch to a reusable bag (I have several now) but I rarely remember to bring them with me.

I find so many uses for supermarket plastic bags that I usually don't throw them away unless they're filled with other trash already.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure an life cycle analysis will be done that shows less impact for the lighter plastic bags, which can be reused or recycled - in any case, the whole "issue" of the bags is really silly, because in use we stuff 12 pounds of food, packaging and products we don't need with 100 times the impact into a nearly weightless bag, and then play feel-good environmentalist and say the bags make their own litter problem.

I make so much trash at home it's amazing, but the plastic shopping bags are outweighed by everything else - even by the plastic garbage bag I throw them out in.

Old Cranky Redneck said...

I sort of recycle about 1% of my plastic bags - as trash bags. I used to use 100% of my paper bags for garbage, but the plastic ones are too small to be very useful for most of it.

I don't much care for government dictating much of anything, and banning plastic bags is really going pretty far. (Trying to legislate undesirable things out of existence - the eternal liberal fallacy.) But that's not my point.

I had thought that paper bags cost 10-20 times a plastic bag. At 5¢ vs. 2¢, the store is close to losing money on plastic bags. Because any set of groceries requires at least twice as many plastic bags as paper ones, even with the half-assed bag packing you'll get these days. And it may get to 3 or 4 times as many.

I suspect that lots of people prefer plastic bags for some reason. I dislike them (the bags, not necessarily the people).

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, I'd prefer incentives to bans, as well. And I can easily use up all the paper bags I get, but can't stop the plastic ones from accumulating even when I try to avoid them.

And yes, the most infuriating thing about the plastic bags is how little the baggers will put in them! The worst is when I watch them put a gallon jug of milk into a plastic bag. The jug has a handle, and the plastic bag isn't really strong enough so you have to carry it by the milk jug's handle anyway. What's the point?