We’ve all seen the pictures: the plastic bags blowing and fluttering in trees, the gross out shots of strangled sea turtles and dead fish, the discarded bags amid methane-steaming seagull-patrolled refuse at municipal dumps. Plastic supermarket bags are bad, bad, bad!
But are they? Are they really that bad? Let’s take a quick look at that question from both sides and address some of the claims that are made; from the environmentalist viewpoint and from that of the consumer.
Full disclosure – I’m anti litter. I know, real controversial. This is a blog about litter after all. I also believe that public policy should be carefully considered before we adopt it. It should make sense and result in a public good. Any reasonable legislative action that will help keep my community cleaner has my tilt, as it were.
First, some background. From the Pacific Gyre to Main Street, disposable plastics are fast becoming a central focus of anti-litter campaigns. At the behest of civic activists and the environmental movement, local and state governments across the country are taking up the issue of bag bans. The argument goes like this: grocery store plastic bags should be banned because they contribute to litter, harm wildlife, are a waste of precious oil resources (non-renewable), wind up in landfills and last for thousands of years. Have I got that right? Close enough.
Unfortunately, like most feel-good campaigns, there appear to be some pretty big holes in the rhetoric. That doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do, but it sure is annoying. For example there are the claims that plastic bags remain ‘toxic’ in the environment for years. Let’s stipulate that polyethylene is inert, ok? Nobody has ever died because they ate food that came into contact with a grocery store food bag. No cancer, no extinction events, no terrible birth defects. Some things are over the top. And then there’s the downside for the consumer, but later for that. Let’s discuss the litter aspect:
Statistics from the annual Nature Conservancy sponsored International Coastal Cleanup, (ICC) which is a good source for litter data, show an alarming statistic: at the 2013 cleanup, grocery store plastic bags were the number six ranked litter item. During the 2013 cleanup, volunteers recovered 411,493 orphaned grocery store bags. Slam dunk, right? Maybe. The ranking is actually down from 2010, when those bags were #2 behind cigarette butts. Not that that’s problem solved or anything. Lets drill down a bit.
We’re talking about Long Island here – a microcosm of the big picture ICC cleanup, but the ICC includes the entire planet. Litter travels, yes, but it’s also local. The Nature Conservancy doesn’t share local stats on their website. Maybe they should. As a local, I’d love to be able to discuss local litter statistics with policy makers. Anyhow, I parsed the available data from their 2013 report and was able to compare the numbers for the US with the world totals. Close enough for now. Some takeaways:
Unsurprisingly, the US contributes the largest raft of collected trash in nearly all categories measured. America had a third of the total cleanup volunteers: about 209,000 out of 648,000 people showed up for the US based cleanup. Americans also picked up the highest total pounds of trash, cleaned the most miles of coastline, and picked up the most total items of trash. Only the African country of Ghana beat out the US for first place in a category. 93 Ghanian volunteers picked up 295 items of litter per person compared to 21 for the Americans. Sounds like a sports analysis, I know. In fact, the US ranked only 56th of 92 countries in total items per person. Not sure what that means, maybe Ghana is very littered, maybe they work harder, maybe they get paid. But GO GHANA! I guess. More power to them.
In terms of press release numbers, the one that is most often quoted is that plastic grocery bags constitute the #6 ranked category of litter picked up during the ICC. That’s true, but not precisely accurate.
In the US, grocery store bags are actually the #8 item of collected litter, behind bottles and cans. It’s practically the only stat in which the US ICC count varies from the rest of the planet. Why? Does the rest of the world not have as many bottles and cans to throw out the car window? Or maybe the rest of the world aren’t pigs: like some of us.
Bag bans attempt to impact the #6 (…#8) source of litter. So what about number’s one through five litter items?
1. Cigarette butts. The most vilified lawful public activity these days is smoking. You can’t smoke anywhere. Not at work, not on mass transit, not at any public event, not even in the parks. You can smoke in the car. And where do the butts go? Out the car window. There’s not a lot of leverage there in terms of litter reduction.
2. Candy wrappers. Kids, mostly. What can you do? Educate and inform. This is something that parents and schools can have an impact on – starting young.
#3, bottle caps. There are about 20% more bottle caps recovered by cleanup volunteers than bottles. Bottle caps are recyclable, but not for a deposit like the bottles and cans and perhaps this is one reason they go out the window.
Cans, coffee stirrers and bottles are next, at #5, #6 and #7 for the US. Maybe the stirrers being made of plastic when most cups are made of paper products that break down quickly is the reason why so many of these end up by the roadside.
Which gets us to the bags, and one reason to consider a ban.
But before we go there, (had ya!) let’s take a quick (Google) look at two more aspects of this ‘nuisance’: the claims that grocery store plastic bags last a millennium and that they kill a lot of wildlife. As anyone who’s ever stooped to pick up a discarded plastic grocery bag of any great vintage already knows (help me out here volunteers) a grocery bag in the wild begins to deteriorate pretty fast. For whatever reason, sun, weather, getting run over by cars and lawnmowers, wind, ice, cold, heat, all of the above or some as yet unknown process, they fall apart out there. It takes a while and they’re a real eyesore while they linger, not to mention a handy spot for mosquito breeding, but these bags go to pieces a lot faster than the ‘ban it!’ crowd wants you to believe. More like a few years than a thousand. What happens to the pieces of a plastic bag is another matter. Micro bits of plastic are a problem too.
But I don’t think that the degradation rate of polystyrene bags is the primary concern here. I think that the big problem is the fact that we as a society have become too accustomed to disposable packaging that is made from a finite resource and that doesn’t really ‘compost’ at all as far as anyone knows: it just gets smaller. Packaging should go away after a while, like those corn based packing peanuts.
As for the threat to wildlife, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of the dangers that the bags pose, but the science is a little thin. We don’t really know for sure just how hazardous these bags are. This is particularly true if you realize that much of the inadvertent wildlife killing that happens is done by discarded fishing equipment and not plastic bags. Let’s cut to the chase on this one though. It’s not nice to fill up the environment with choke hazards like plastic bags. There are alternatives like reusable bags.
One important and probable down side of bag bans is the impact on the consumer. The bag ban as inconvenience and proxy tax. Is there really anyone out there who simply discards the grocery bags? Every thrifty shopper has a stash. They even manufacture those wall mounted ‘bag savers‘ just for the purpose of saving the bags for reuse. They’re unbelievably useful around the household. It’s recycling, for Pete’s sake!
Consumers fear, rightly, that they’ll have to pay for a product to replace the free bags that they’re using for a broad range of household purposes. I think that the only question is: “how much is this going to cost me?” The bag manufacturing lobby has an opinion on that one, take it for what it’s worth. Environmental groups don’t really highlight this aspect. For sure, the paper bags cost more money to produce, and have other shortcomings, as do the reusable shopping bags. The end cost to the consumer could be small or it could be considerable, we’ll see what the market does with this.
Which brings me back to the ICC list. The logic is this: Because we’ve already got measures in place to discourage or reduce the first seven ‘big’ items on the litter list, it’s time to do something about #8. Banal, I know, but grocery bags constitute a lot of litter and it’s their turn. It’s time to find out if we can do without this item. From this simple expedient flow the millions of dollars and the millions of words.
Local bans help with the process of discovery, but the cultural war between the ‘ban it!’ crowd and the ‘don’t ban it’ crowd is far from over. The smoke of the ‘bag’ war is thick. Here’s one analysis. I wonder who paid for that? Suffice to say, both sides are well funded. The first state-wide ban is in effect, but it’s still to new for there to be any real assessment of it’s impact on the consumer and on the environment.
What’s my opinion? Is a bag ban in the interest of public sanitation and the health of our environment? Some dope once said, famously, that we would have to enact legislation to find out what was in it. This time that might actually be the only way to know for sure: to try it. But the interested governments should have hearings, do the due dilegence, let the public speak, debate. No secret sessions. If that plays out in favor, then do the ban. What’s the worst that could happen? We can always tinker with it if there are problems. My two, what’s yours?