Plastic Industry Strikes Back

Following San Francisco’s lead, other cities with plastic bag woes are now considering their own bans on single-use bags in grocery and drug stores. But when the progressive town of Fairfax, California—population just over 7,000—decided to ban plastic bags in their stores, the plastics industry threatened to sue, citing a concern over increased paper bag use. Similar threats are slowing plastic bag ban efforts in Oakland, Annapolis, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, says banning plastic bags forces consumers to use paper, which is more energy- and resource-intensive than plastic. He estimates plastic bag manufacturing uses 40 to 70 percent less energy than paper, and emits less than half the greenhouse gas emissions as producing paper bags. “Plastic bags are a more environmentally responsible choice,” Christman says.

But because these bags are often used only once and recycling programs are not widespread, millions end up in streams, clogging sewer systems and choking marine wildlife. Christman says more effort is being concentrated on grocery store plastic bag recycling programs. New York City and the state of California have recently approved mandatory recycling areas in each grocery or drug store, and Christman says with a little public education, plastic bag litter will diminish. “We’d love consumers to know that plastic bags are recyclable and to bring them back to their grocery store to be recycled,” he says. “[Recycling plastic bags] is certainly as convenient as using a reusable cloth bag and we think it’s something consumers can adapt to.”

But Andy Peri, campaigner for Green Sangha, an environmental group in Fairfax that helped propose the bag ban, says these bags are recycled into a low-quality plastic used to make plastic decking and playground equipment, what he calls “down-cycling.” Even if a bag is recycled properly, he says, it still has a short life span.

“Once that playground slide breaks, it’s not getting recycled again,” Peri says. Peri and others are working to get the ban on the city’s November ballot to let the voters decide, in which case the plastics industry cannot sue the town. “We’re going to get it passed because it’s a no-brainer in Fairfax,” he says. “A lot of towns want to do this, but they don’t want to get sued. If the voters pass it, it’s a precedent for the public to say no to plastic bags.”

For now, stores in Fairfax can voluntarily stop giving out plastic bags, and many have, Peri says. But the real solution in the paper and plastic debate is to encourage consumers to invest in a sturdy, reusable bag. “The idea is to discourage people from using bags altogether,” Peri says. “A big piece of it is changing our perception and our “throw away” consumer habits.”