Plastic Bags Are Hurting More Than The Environment

September 5th 2015

Plastic bags, they’re everywhere. About 100 billion are used in United States every year. New York City is responsible for 5.2 billion of that count; Tempe, Arizona contributes 50 million. These mundane conveniences that you probably have stuffed in a drawer or under your sink are also the focal point of an ongoing battle.

That’s right, plastic bags are at the center of a serious conflict between those who want to regulate their usage and those who don’t. And as Adam Sternbergh meticulously detailed for New York Magazine last month, “the fight over plastic bags is about a lot more than how to get groceries home.”


Plastic bags produce a lot of plastic waste: they account for tons of the garbage waste that ends up in landfills. They don’t biodegrade, which is a huge problem, instead the bags just break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. And because they’re used and disposed of so frequently, bag trash piles up fast. Just transporting it is a costly endeavor—municipalities can spend millions of dollars on carting bags that have been thrown out to landfill. Enormous quantities also litter our streets. They’re rarely as beautiful as the one blowing around in that iconic American Beauty scene, and paying for their clean-up is another high cost local governments incur. This is clearly more than an environmental issue. Unsurprisingly, lawmakers (and concerned citizens) have been wondering what we can do about the plastic bag problem for a while.

Insert Jennie Reilly Romer—a leading expert on plastic bag laws. A lawyer originally from California, she’s been a key player in the plastic bag debate and has championed plastic bag legislation all over the country. ATTN: sat down with Romer, who gave us the skinny on all things plastic (and paper).

ATTN: Can you tell us a little about the battle of the bags? What’s going on here—why do some people want to regulate plastic bag usage?

Jennie Romer: I like to think of the plastic bag battles starting back around in 2005, in the U.S. What happened is that Ireland put a charge on plastic carryout bags, and that went into effect in 2002. Some Commissioners from San Francisco’s Dept. of the Environment went out to Ireland, saw that, came back to San Francisco, and wanted to have the same thing happen there. They wanted to put a charge on plastic carryout bags because they saw in Ireland that a 22 cent tax lead to a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag use right away, including about a 90 percent reduction in roadside plastic bag litter, which was an issue there. So in San Francisco the Commissioners recommended a 17 cent charge on all bags, paper and plastic. That started to go forward, and then quickly the mayor interjected, and put a hold on that.

In the meantime, the Grocers Association and other industry lobbying groups went to the state capital in California and snuck in some preemption language into a [proposed] statewide plastic bag recycling bill. Preemption language means that in that state bill, it said, in a little subparagraph, “Oh hey, by the way, no local municipalities—meaning no cities or counties—can adopt any law that puts a fee or a charge on plastic bags. Specifically on plastic carry out bags.” San Francisco was pretty shocked at that. They thought their bill was just getting put on hold, but it turns out they were sabotaged. So in response, and the plastics industry really didn’t see this coming, San Francisco decided to ban plastic carryout bags altogether, because they weren’t prohibited from doing that. That’s how the first ban came about. It wasn’t originally meant to be a ban, but that’s what they came up with because that’s what was available.

Then other California cities also started to adopt plastic bag bans. The first test case came from the city of Oakland, which is across the bay from San Francisco. [Oakland] saw what San Francisco did, and they said, “Hey, we should do that, too.” But they didn’t have the years of research and public comment on their record. So Oakland was sued by a group that was funded by the plastics industry—a group that said, “Hey Oakland, you need to do a giant environmental impact report before adopting such an ordinance”—and such reports usually cost about a hundred thousand dollars—“because if you ban plastic [bags], people will just switch to paper [bags], and paper could be worse for the environment, so you need to study that, and see if there’s a chance that it could be worse.” And because Oakland didn’t have a robust record of everything that they studied in order to adopt that law, Oakland lost in court. That law was taken off the books. After that happened, there was a group that formed, called Save The Plastic Bag Coalition, and that group proceeded to threaten to sue, and sometimes [actually] sue, every city and county in California that moved forward with a [plastic bag] ordinance.

I got into this thinking that this was a very straightforward, simple way for local jurisdictions to regulate this problematic waste, but it got a whole lot more complicated, because of the lobbying and all of the litigation that started to happen in California.

ATTN: So a ban went through in California, but that wasn’t the original intention. What’s the difference between a ban and a charge, and what’s your position on each?

JR: Well, charges have been what’s worked all over the world—in Ireland, in a lot of other European countries, in some parts of China. [With a charge] you see really dramatic reductions [in usage] and changes in consumer behavior. In San Francisco [a charge is] what they were originally looking at, but the only reason they instead adopted a ban was because they were legally prohibited from putting a charge on plastic bags— because of plastics industry lobbying.

So, we changed the type of law that we were adopting [in California]. The first one was in LA County. We implemented a ban on plastic bags, and a charge on paper bags. People didn’t just switch to paper, because there was a ten cent charge on paper, and that made people reduce their overall bag use a lot. I call [this type of legislation], "bag ban 2.0," or "the second generation"— where you have the ban on thin plastic but you also have the ten cent charge on other bags. With it, consumers have to make a choice when they’re at the register. They aren’t just handed the next available free thing; they have to make a choice— “oh, do I need a bag today?”— and having that charge makes a huge difference. In LA County we saw people stop using the thin plastic bags, and we also saw a thirty percent reduction in paper bag use. That argument the plastics industry was using, that it could be worse for the environment, was eliminated.

Unfortunately the [plastics] industry also brought claims that the ten cent charge was an unconstitutional tax. How it works is the state government can levy taxes, but local governments aren’t allowed to levy taxes unless they’re authorized by the state. So, what we did in California was have the retailer keep the whole amount of the money, [to] cover some of their costs. Since no government entity is collecting any of the money, it isn’t a tax. And that’s one of the models I’ve been promoting all over the country—ban thin plastic, put a charge on everything else, you see an overall reduction.

But, we kind of forget about the beginning of the story—the whole reason of why we were banning in the first place, is because we couldn’t put a charge on plastic. That does’t apply everywhere. That was a very specific thing to the California law, so in other places, including New York, you could put a charge on all bags. Washington D.C. has done that, they put a five cent charge on all carry out bags, paper and plastic, and they’ve seen really good results, about a 60 percent reduction in bag use and with very little pushback.

One other thing that’s been in the news more recently is cities that have adopted bans are shocked and surprised that one of the things that happens after bans are adopted is that plastic bags just get thicker. But that’s something that I am not at all surprised by. I spend a lot of time going from city to city, talking about what the best type of ordinance is. And I say, “don’t adopt a ban that does’t include a charge on other bags.”

In Chicago and in Honolulu this last month or so, their ordinances went into effect, but they’re just bans. All the news stories say, “Oh, thicker bags were being given away at Wal-Mart, that’s all that’s happened, and people are still treating them like single-use bags, people are still littering them.” And the reason for that is that a reusable bag is defined in a lot of these ordinances as plastic bags that are 2.2 mil or thicker. So what the plastic bag companies have done, is just create a bag that meets that requirement, and [they] continue to sell them to the retailers to be given away for free. And that’s not what I’ve been spending years and years to help do. [With straight bans], you don’t really see a change in consumer behavior, you just see a slightly thicker bag. Which is arguably better for the environment because it’s less likely to blow around with the wind, get stuck in trees, go into the ocean, all that stuff, but it takes more petroleum to produce, and it’s not the answer that we’re looking for here.

ATTN: Why do we need plastic bag laws in the first place?

JR: People ask a lot of the time, why plastic bags? Why are they worse than any other product? And the main reason is, they’ve become an icon of waste because they’re so visible, because they’re so uniquely aerodynamic—they get caught in the wind even if they’re disposed of properly—and they end up in trees, they end up in waterways; it’s something that people can easily identify as being a problem. Another thing that’s unique about them is that unlike a lot of other products, they’re given away for free. So people pay very little attention to whether they get a bag or not, and think very little of how they’re going to dispose of the bag. So by addressing them not being available for free anymore, that really reduces the amount of bags that are out there, because people really need to start thinking about it.

I hear a lot of people say,”I use plastic bags to pick up after my dog,” or “I use plastic bags to carry out my trash,” or something like that, but you know, you can take that into account. That’s why I prefer charges to bans, because people can still have the option to choose whatever bag it is they particularly like for those secondary purposes. [How they’ll use the bag] is something that they’re going to take into account when doing that quick calculus at the register of whether it’s worth it to pay ten cents that day or that shopping trip.

ATTN: There’s a lot of pushback from the plastics industry. What is their stake in this?

JR: Well the plastics industry wants to protect the market for their product, so it’s not surprising that they’re going out of their way to stop these types of laws from being adopted, but it’s kind of shocking the amount of money and energy that’s spent on defeating plastic bag ordinances. It seems like kind of an innocuous subject to most people, but for the plastics industry it’s huge. They have websites against it, they have lots of paid lobbyists who show up to city council meetings in very small towns all over the country, and they spend millions and millions of dollars on these lawsuits that I’ve talked about.

Quite a few people have questioned, including myself, "Why? Why [is the plastics industry] spending so much energy on [fighting plastic bag legislation]?" And I think that it’s really a tipping point issue, where the plastics industry understands that plastic bags have become this icon, and if plastic bag regulation becomes a commonplace thing, then that’s the just the tip of the iceberg. There are other single-use plastic products that the industry sells that could be targeted next, and so they want to make sure that they stop plastic bags from being regulated in order to stop other things from potentially being regulated—like plastic water bottles, for example, and Styrofoam food ware. So it’s not just the plastics industry that is behind this fight; it’s not just the plastic bag manufacturing industry that’s behind this fight; it’s really the American Chemistry Council, which is the lobbying organization that represents the oil and gas and plastics industries in the United States, and that’s a huge lobby, and they’ve got a ton of money.

ATTN: Is the plastics industry playing—or, perhaps, preying—on the idea of “American liberty?”

JR: They do a really great job of appealing to a verity of audiences, and one of their main messages is [that] plastic bag regulations are outsourcing personal responsibility. It’s a funny phrase, but [they’re saying] that people should be responsible for their own actions. There are different campaigns, like the Keep America Beautiful campaign—they’re a well-known group that basically promotes personal responsibility, and they are against things like bottle bills and bag bills because they believe that people should be able to clean up after themselves. They’ll organize litter clean-ups—and they don’t blame [littler] on the product, they blame it on the people, which is ridiculous. The plastics industry, for the most part, appeals to people who don’t want any type of regulation, don’t want any type of charge or tax.

But one thing that I like to point out is that this isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s also an economic issue. So, these companies, under current U.S. laws, they aren’t responsible for what happens to their product after the consumer finishes using it. So the cities and the counties are the ones that are then left in charge, and it’s therefore the tax payers who have to pay to clean out the sewer systems or the sewer drains that get plastic bags caught in them, or to clean up the litter in a neighborhood, or to fish the plastic bags out of trees. Plastic bags also cause a lot of problems with municipal recycling facilities. So if people put plastic bags in with their recycling, that clogs the recycling machinery, [and it costs money to correct the problem]. And the city—at least in New York City—has a profit sharing agreement with curbside recycling, so if money is lost during that process, [like is it when bags clog recycling machinery], it’s the city losing money, and therefore the taxpayer losing money. So it’s not just an, “Oh, I care about the sea turtle that is choking on a plastic bag thousands of miles away,” issue, which is something I care about, but not necessarily something that everyone [cares about]. I like to be clear that it’s an economic issue, [because] the plastics industry is externalizing [certain] costs to cities and counties.Ladies whose job it is to manually pull plastic bags from recycling line. Twitter - twitter.com

ATTN: Tell me a little more about recycling. Can we recycle plastic bags?

JR: Plastic bag recycling is just a distraction by plastics industry PR folks to make you feel ok about continuing to use their single-use products. The thing that most people don't realize is that recycling is a commodities market and there simply is no robust market for the sale of dirty plastic bags. What's worse is that people try to recycle them by tossing them in curbside bins and plastic bags end up clogging recycling machinery and contaminating bales of more valuable recyclables. Used plastic films, including plastic bags, used to go to China, but China stopped accepting domestic films a couple years ago so [now] they mostly go to landfill, [and are not recycled].

ATTN: So the idea that the plastic you recycle at home goes to some local recycling center where it gets melted down and remade into other plastic products is absolutely a myth.

JR: Totally! Recyclables, including plastics, have to get collected and sorted and "baled" on the municipal level then sold on the commodities market by the ton and sometimes literally shipped around the world to the buyer. But plastics aren't all the same. Some are worth a lot more than others. Plastic water bottles are made out of plastic resin #1, PET, which is the most recycled and highest value type pf plastic. It can be turned into a new bottle or a cup or a fleece jacket. Dirty plastic bags (LDPE or HDPE, resin #2 or #4), on the other hand, have almost no market. Films generally can't be "up-cycled" into a thicker product. Sims Recycling, the company that runs New York’s curbside recycling, usually can't find any buyer at all for the dirty plastic bags that they pick out of their sorting line, which means that those bags go to landfill. And putting your plastic carryout bags in your curbside recycling is WAY WORSE than just putting them in the trash because they clog the sorting machinery. Sims has to pay people just to pick plastic carryout bags off the line. And those that don't get pulled off or stuck in the machinery end up contaminating bales of recyclables that are actually valuable, like aluminum cans.

ATTN: You mention New York. What’s going on regarding plastic bag legislation there?

JR: In New York City, there’s currently a bill for a ten cent charge on all carryout bags—I helped write that. Right now, it’s before the city council. It already had a hearing, and it’s set to be voted on, but currently it doesn’t have enough votes. The main reason for that is that Mayor DeBlasio still hasn’t come out either way about the ordinance, and there are quite a few members of the city council that I think are waiting to hear what the mayor has to say about it. If people want to get involved, there’s a website called bagitnyc.org—go and check out the language of the ordinance. Then, calling the mayor, and calling your city council members is the best thing you can do. Also we have an interactive map, where if you take a picture of plastic bag litter anywhere in New York City and write a hashtag—#BagItNYC—it gets uploaded to a fancy GIS map, and it shows you what council member’s district it’s in, and whether the council member has voted yes or no [for the bag bill]. If people want to get involved in that way, they’re welcome to do it.

Jennie Romer currently resides in NYC and is an expert on plastic bag legislation. Find out more at plasticbaglaws.org.

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