On March 11, the Star Tribune published a disappointing commentary by Patricia Helmberger about plastic retail bags that was filled with hyperbole and blatant inaccuracies (“It’s time to bag these ubiquitous, deadly pollutants”).
Having spent a great deal of time in Minnesota growing up, I know it’s a beautiful place. We should all work together to keep it that way. But for a reasoned policy debate about how best to reduce waste and litter in our environment — in this case, with respect to a plastic bag ban proposal — it makes sense to consider hard facts about the kinds of bags shoppers use to carry goods, and the environmental results in cities that have implemented bag bans.
First, some bag facts and clarifications:
American-made plastic retail bags are 100 percent recyclable and make up less than 0.3 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste stream, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Most Americans have easy access to recycling drop-offs at stores like Cub Foods and Target. Trucks that deliver products to these stores collect their plastic bags and bring them to recycling centers.
These recycling facilities — like the one in Shawano, Wis. — provide good jobs with benefits and have helped increase the rate of plastic bag and film recycling by 74 percent since 2005, turning bags and other plastic films and wraps into materials used in the manufacture of plastic playground equipment, decking and new bags.
Helmberger claimed that plastic bags are made from petroleum and contain harmful chemicals like bisphenol A and phthalates, all of which is completely false. Plastic retail bags are made from a byproduct of domestic natural gas refining and are food-grade material. Most reusable bags are made in China from petroleum and shipped across the ocean on cargo ships; studies show they aren’t used nearly enough to offset their resource-intensive production and distribution.
A plastic bag used only once also has a much smaller environmental footprint over its life cycle than a common cloth reusable bag, which has to be used 131 times before it becomes a more sustainable choice.
Fortunately, plastic retail bags are highly reused. More than 90 percent of Americans choose to reuse their plastic bags, whether to line small trashcans, clean up after pets or carry lunches to work or school.
Now, about bag bans. Do they actually help the environment?
Let’s take a look at some places that have been down this path. When Austin, Texas, banned plastic retail bags, retailers started to use thicker plastic bags allowed under the law, resulting in more plastic waste in landfills. Chicago just repealed its bag ban because even the mayor admitted it was a failure. In California, the state recently banned plastic retail bags and we are already beginning to see an increase in the volume of total plastic used.
So, did a ban reduce the number of traditional plastic retail bags being used in these places? Sure, but there was no meaningful reduction in overall waste or litter, and the legal carryout alternatives actually have greater environmental impact when you consider their life cycles.
And what about the economic impact on consumers and small businesses?
A study done by the National Center for Policy Analysis showed that banning plastic bags negatively impacted retail sales and employment, shifting business to stores just outside the affected area. In Los Angeles, a study showed stores affected by a ban area were forced to terminate staff by as much as 10 percent. And for consumers who shop in these areas, a bag tax only leads to higher grocery bills, putting low-income families and senior citizens at a disadvantage.
Local bag bans have resulted in unintended environmental and economic consequences throughout the country, many of which were the result of misinformation campaigns about plastic bags. If there is going to be a policy debate about banning plastic bags, Minnesotans deserve to know the facts. A ban is not better for the environment, or the pocketbooks of hardworking families.
Matt Seaholm is executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance.