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.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.
“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.
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.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:
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.
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.