Plastic or Reusable?
Nancy Yang, Rochester Minnesota
You make it to the end of the checkout station, and the friendly teenage cashier asks you, “Paper or plastic?”
If you’re a resident of Los Angeles, CA, you won’t need to make this decision. As of May 2012, LA became the largest US city to ban “single-use” plastic shopping bags at grocery checkouts; it joined New York City, Seattle, Austin, the entire state of Hawaii and various cities scattered across the country, in the bag ban movement. Many major world cities have passed similar bans or imposed taxes on bags, and paper bags have dropped out of the race since research established their adverse environmental effects. With the ardent advocacy of environmental groups, the reusable shopping bag has steadily gained consumer favor.
And why not? Reusable bags are cheap, if you haven’t already snatched some freely given away at events. They seem durable, more so than your typical flimsy bags, and they’re multipurpose. For most environmentally minded shoppers, the switch from single-use to reusable was a simple choice, and hardly a hassle for consumers.
But is it so simple?
I stumbled on the topic when I saw 12-year-old Abby Goldberg’s petition on Change.org. She wanted her hometown, Grayslake, IL, to stop using plastic shopping bags, but the American Progressive Bag Alliance retaliated by lobbying for their own bill, SB 3442, the Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Act, which required state “plastic carryout bag manufacturers” to register with the state EPA, and establish collection and recycling programs. It’s been touted by the APBA as a progressive bill to encourage consumers, manufacturers, and retailers to work together for the environment.
So far, the bill has pacified both the state Senate and House, and now sits before the governor awaiting his signature. It might have pacified me as well but for some nuanced details. For one, manufacturers pay a $500 per year registration fee, and violators will be charged no more than $1,000, plus $100 per day of the violation. Not much of a hit against large, wealthy corporations. More importantly, the bill prevents any cities or towns of less than 2 million people from regulating or banning plastic bags: “the regulation of the collection and recycling of plastic carryout bags and film is and exclusive power and function of the state.” Which means that no Illinois city besides Chicago will be able to set a plastic bag ban.
This seemed like the finger of special interest pointing at Abby Goldberg’s campaign. Abby’s petition will be sent to Governor Pat Quinn, and the fate of SB 3442 will rest with him.
I researched the dispute more closely, expecting it to be a clear environment vs. business showdown. Exactly which is the more environmental choice—plastic or reusable?
Plastic bag industries advocate several reasons for perpetuating our disposable bag habit. These arguments from the American Plastic Manufacturing websites are listed below, with my own supporting or disproving research:
1) “Plastic bags are 100% recyclable, into composite lumber and other plastic products, such as new bags.”
Grocery store bags are typically made of #1 or 2 plastics, (high- or low-density polyethylene), which are the purest plastics with the least additives. Recycling would be efficient—but only when the bags are clean and separated, so most facilities must collect bags separately from other recyclables. Their high volume-to-weight ratio also drives up collection and transportation; according to Jared Blumenfeld, San Francisco’s Director of Environment, it costs $4,000 to process one ton of plastic bags for a return of $32.3 And finally, according to American Chemistry Council themselves, in 2007, more than 50% of collected plastic bags was shipped to China for processing. In 2010, the EPA reported only 12% of produced bags, sacks and wraps were reclaimed.
2) “American plastic bags are made from natural gas, NOT [foreign crude] oil.”
While difficult to coax an unbiased answer out of any source, this fact holds up. According to Green Review Blog, plastic bags—at least the American made ones—are made from byproducts of mostly natural gas and oil, so they don’t put any additional demand on fossil fuel refineries. But the fact still stands that the bags are made from an unsustainable source.
3) “Ninety-seven percent of people […] never wash their [reusable] bags,” and “more than half… contained some form of coliform bacteria.”
These figures come from a single University of Arizona study (sponsored by the American Chemistry Council) on 84 reusable bag samples. While the small sample size and the biased sponsor makes the study scientifically questionable, it’s purely logical that bacteria would accumulate on reusable bags when they carry raw meats and unwashed produce; the bacteria is easily eliminated by normal washing, a small addition to your daily laundry load. There are no studies to prove that re-using these single-use bags would be any more sanitary than reusables, since they carry the same groceries, so who’s to say that reusables are more unsanitary than reusing single-use?
4) “Eighty to ninety percent of the population reuses plastic grocery bags at least once.”
Various sources show varying degrees of plastic bag reuse. A 2006 survey in the UK showed 40.3% of plastic bags used as garbage bin liners. You probably used them to clean up after your pets, bag your lunch, keep your things dry. Plastic producers argue that banning free grocery bags would induce consumers to by more heavy-duty garbage bags that have far worse environmental impact. This for me is the toughest argument to deflect because consumer activity is so difficult to measure. My family always uses store bags for trash and never buys garbage bags; in terms of sanitary disposal, grocery bags seem the most economical and environmentally sound answer. Not only that, but it would take between 10 to 100 uses of woven plastic or cotton/canvas reusable bags to equate the environmental impact (water, fuel and pollution) from single-use bags reused just once or twice.
After this extensive research, my stand against plastic grocery bags is slightly shaken. The problem is that there are so few unbiased statistics on bags, and neither side seems willing to compromise. Still, I am not without hope. In 2011, Japanese inventor Akinori Ito and American inventor Kevin DeWhitt separately developed processes to turn used bags into crude oil. The technology hasn’t quite become mainstream, but with good publicity it might become the norm in a few years. Until then, the best choice seems to be to reuse all your bags - no matter the type - as much as possible. Illinois Governor Quinn has stated that he will “stand up for the environment” in his final decision, but I can now guarantee that his decision—even with politics aside—won’t be an easy one.