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L.A.'s Plastic and Paper Bag Ban is Built on Past Mistakes

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The wind blows a plastic bag around the beach near the Manhattan Beach Pier | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
The wind blows a plastic bag around the beach near the Manhattan Beach Pier | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Update, 1/1/14: L.A.'s plastic bag ban starts to take effect today. Read more here.

The area is naturally susceptible to flooding. Its low-lying geography, which lies beside the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, is suitable for its agriculture sector but inconvenient during monsoon season. Natural flooding and heavy rain are a characteristic of Bangladesh, but the 1998 floods were particularly devastating.

Due to unusually high monsoon rains and melted water from the Himalaya Mountains, the converging rivers spilt over: more than 1,000 lives were lost, 300,000 homes gone, and 30 million Bengali people homeless. After the water subsided, it was discovered that humans helped cause the flood that covered more than 75 percent of the country. From deforestation to poor flood protection methods, it was obvious that the flood didn't have to be as destructive as it was. However, there was one man-made culprit that caused so much outrage that it was banned four years later.

The plastic bag.

In 2002, the Bangladesh government was the first in the world to ban the use of plastic bags. The year prior, 9.3 million plastic bags were dumped in the country's capital, Dhaka, every day, which contributed to blocked drains and waterways, causing flooding.

Since then, myths of a plastic bag island swirling in the Pacific Ocean and images of sea mammals with plastic particles in their digestive systems have bombarded the human psyche into thinking that plastic bags are more environmentally destructive than car emissions and burning of fossil fuels.

Residents in the suburban flooded Keraniganj area shout for aid as a relief team for the 1998 flood arrives. | Photo: MUKTAKANTHA/AFP/Getty Images
Residents in the suburban flooded Keraniganj area shout for aid as a relief team for the 1998 flood arrives. | Photo: MUKTAKANTHA/AFP/Getty Images

While foreign countries like Bangladesh, China, and England have taken the lead in banning or levying plastic bags, American cities are finally following suit on both coasts. Now, Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the U.S., will soon vote to ban both plastic and paper bags, in what is the strictest bag ban to be proposed to date.

Although the paper industry struggled in the early 2000s, plastic bag bans have given this floundering industry a well-needed boost as more than 40 local jurisdictions in California have either banned plastic bags are in talks to, leaving the market open for paper companies to claim. While the plastic bag has become the poster child as the environmental devil, paper bags have seemed to slip under the radar even though they are worse for the environment.

At face value, banning plastic bags looks like a simple and rational step towards a better environment, but what is often overlooked is that the hidden costs of such a ban are a greater detriment. Through interviews with environmental experts, industry insiders, and research from various government documents and independent studies, it is clear that by only banning plastic bags, communities increase their use of paper bags, which wastes more energy in the manufacturing and delivery process, uses more toxic chemicals, which contributes to air and water pollution, and fills up landfills at a greater rate than plastic bags.

The Los Angeles initiative follows bans by San Francisco, Malibu, Los Angeles County, and most recently Hawaii. These actions come after AB 1998, a statewide bill seeking to ban plastic bags, was defeated by an Assembly vote in 2010.

While environmental groups and proponents of the plastics industry have been vocal about their positions, one group has been shockingly absent from city meetings and political discussions. The paper bag industry has grown in the face of plastic bag bans and while the L.A. initiative would prohibit paper bags from reaching millions of customers, the industry will still remain profitable by leaning on the plastic bag bans already in place.

It is admirable that the government has taken the steps they believe necessary to protect the environment, but bans and levies can only do so much in a society of waste. Laws for or against certain environmental actions only work to a certain extent until people stop caring. Society needs to be cognizant of the fact that no law can reverse the country's environmental issues until everyone can commit to a total lifestyle change toward a greener way of living.

While neither plastic or paper bags are healthy for the environment, city councils, and governments around the world have been acting irresponsibly by ignoring the consequences of paper bags. Luckily, Los Angeles is working on a solution that corrects the inaccuracies of previous bans.

"We have the vision to make a change now," said Los Angeles Board of Public Works Commissioner Steve Nutter. "The evidence on the use of paper bags is that the environmental cost is too high. There is no need to pay that cost anymore."

Almost fifty years ago, plastic bags grew in popularity as the newly introduced sandwich bag helped moms around the country pack a messy free lunch. Seen as a more environmentally-friendly and sanitary alternative to paper bags, the plastic bag was introduced to grocery stores after being brought from Sweden to the U.S. by ExxonMobil in 1976.

Made of high-density polyethylene, plastic bags are cheap to produce, flexible, durable, waterproof, and chemically resistant. They can hold up to 1,000 times their own weight, are easy to clean, and rarely break.

According to the book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story", the need to eliminate single-use plastic bags initially began with paper bag manufacturers who saw plastic bags as a threat. Then the cause was taken up by environmental group after environmental group until Captain Charles Moore came upon a stretch of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean in 1997. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which was claimed to be the size of Texas, caused an uproar as the dangers plastic had on sea mammals finally hit the mainstream media.

Although there is some debate as to the size of the "Garbage Patch," the Algalita Marine Research Foundation has stated that this huge island of plastic trash is an exaggeration as the patch is actually an area of floating plastic particles.

From there, foreign countries started banning plastic bags due to the massive amount of litter it caused. Then in 2007, San Francisco made headlines when it became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. The city blamed the "white pollution" for littering streets and choking marine life and believed the measure would be the first step towards a greener city. Since then, governments and retailers around the country have moved from plastic to paper and, in total, more than 200 anti-bag measures have been introduced in the U.S.

It is easy to understand why plastic bags have become an environmental target. The plastic bag industry is seen by many to be the manipulating, greedy, manufacturing counterpart to the tobacco industry. Plastic bags are stuck in trees, floating in rivers, and matted on beaches. The Guinness World Records named it the most "ubiquitous consumer item in the world," and it's so durable that it could outlive the average person.

"There are a lot of facts that came out about plastic bags that made people more passionate in trying to get rid of them," said Leslie Tamminen, Ocean Program Director of Seventh Generation Advisors.

Tamminen, who also works as a facilitator for the Clean Seas Coalition, explains that her organization and others like it have pushed for plastic bag policies because they believe it could have a greater effect on the environment by making people more environmentally aware in their everyday lives.

"We feel that plastic bag bans, in particular, could cause a consumer behavior change on a life scale," she said. "Once people get used to using a reusable bag, it's amazing how many people start expanding that consciousness to other consumer products."

While plastic bags aren't good for the environment, they certainly aren't the environmental menace they are made out to be.

Commonly referred to as an urban tumbleweed, single-use plastic bag ban proponents claim that plastic bags fill our landfills, litter streets and beaches, kill sea mammals, use foreign oil, and are impossible to recycle.

According to a 2004 report published by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, only .04% of the state's waste is from plastic grocery and other merchandising bags. Plastic bags also fill up little space in landfills because they can be tightly compressed unlike paper, which occupies almost half of overall landfill volume.

Environmental groups also argue that plastics don't biodegrade in landfills. While this is true due to the chemical make-up of the bag, modern landfills make it nearly impossible for anything to biodegrade. Slate, an online magazine, explains that landfills are lined on the bottom with clay and plastic to prevent waste from seeping into the soil and are constantly covered to reduce the smell. This means that garbage in landfills receive little sunlight, air, and water, making it difficult for even the most degradable objects to decompose.

A surfer passes trash and debris from the run-off of storms near the mouth of the San Gabriel River as another storm moves in on January 26, 2010 in Seal Beach, CA. | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
A surfer passes trash and debris from the run-off of storms near the mouth of the San Gabriel River as another storm moves in on January 26, 2010 in Seal Beach, CA. | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

When plastic bags don't make it to the landfill, they are either littered or taken to recycling facilities. While plastic bags are the most common pieces of litter people see, it is not the most common item that litters our streets and beaches.

"You do see plastic bags from time to time; it's noticeable," said John Picciuto, President of Western Plastic Association. "But take a closer look and most of litter is from bottles and cigarette butts."

A 2009 national study conducted by Keep America Beautiful found that tobacco products are the most prevalent aggregate litter item, which is roughly 38 percent of all litter in the United States. This includes, cigarette butts, cigars, and packaging. The second largest type of litter are paper products like newspapers and paper bags with almost 22 percent. Plastic items did round out the top three with approximately 20 percent of the country's trash, but plastic trash consisted mostly of plastic bottles, containers, and other plastic packaging besides bags.

The most important and passionate area of concern for people are the beaches, which California has over 1,000 miles of, attracting millions of tourists every year.

It has been estimated that 100,000 sea mammals and birds are killed by plastic bags every year. While it is true that turtles, seabirds, fish, and plankton have been known to ingest smaller plastic particles, The Times UK revealed in 2008 that most deaths were caused by fishing gear, ropes, and strapping bands as most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag.

"I've never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag," Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum, said in the article. "Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging."

A plastic grocery bag is seen in the Los Angeles River on November 17, 2010 | Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A plastic grocery bag is seen in the Los Angeles River on November 17, 2010 | Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Environmental Impact Report conducted by the city of Santa Monica to analyze the city's proposed ban ordinance even states that banning plastic bags won't have a significant effect on coastal and marine habitats.

The biological impacts associated with the proposed Santa Monica Single-use Carryout Bag Ordinance would not be significant and would not contribute to any cumulative impacts to regional biological resources. - Section 4.2-9

The only accurate arguments that plastic bag ban proponents have is that plastic bags are made from oil and they are hard to recycle. More than 1.6 billion gallons of oil are used each year to make plastic bags, a harsh reality for a society trying to wean off oil. But some local plastic bag manufacturers are recognizing that there needs to be a shift towards using renewable resources.

"Everyone is cognizant that plastic bags have a bad reputation. The market is forcing us to do something more," said Cathy Browne, General Manager at Crown Poly.

Crown Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer located in the city of Vernon, Calif., has moved away from oil and only uses domestic natural gas or raw materials in its plastic bag manufacturing process. While natural gas still produces greenhouse gases, it is to a less extent than oil and relatively benign when accidentally released into the environment.

Unfortunately, whether made from foreign oil or domestic natural gas, plastic bags are rarely recycled. According to California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, the 2009 statewide recycling rate for plastic bags is about three percent. Bags that are placed in recycling bins are still a headache to recycle because the feed must be clean, meaning what goes through the recycling process must only be high-density polyethylene grocery bags and they must not be contaminated by food products. Recycling machinery is also not ideal as plastic bags readily gum up the machines making it necessary to constantly clean them.

Most consumers believe paper bags are a better option than plastic bags because of its high recycling rate. The Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation states that 21 percent of paper bags are recycled statewide, which is due to increased education and convenience. According to a 2007 American Forest & Paper Association Community Survey, 87 percent of the U.S. have access to some form of community recycling program, either through curbside collection or drop-off programs. With plastic, consumers have to go to the drop-off bins at large grocery chains, if they are even aware it is there. Unfortunately, this belief is misguided as paper bags are still more harmful for the environment than plastic.

Paper bags are made from trees. The statement should be obvious, but the environmental consequences might not be. A 2008 article from the National Cooperative Grocers Association states that each year, the United States consumes 10 billion paper grocery bags, requiring 14 million trees. Cutting down trees is incredibly harmful for the environment because forests are a major absorber of greenhouse gases. Trees remove carbon and release oxygen into the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deforestation could account for up to one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions.

Not only are greenhouse gases a result of cutting trees, but manufacturing of paper bags produces even more greenhouse gases. According to a 2007 study conducted by Boustead Consulting & Associates, it takes almost four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag and uses more fossil fuel as does a plastic bag. The same study also reveals that paper mills use twenty times as much fresh water as plastic.

Paper bag plants also use a heavy amount of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process. According to Resueit.com, the majority of paper is made by heating wood chips at high temperatures in a chemical solution. The use of these toxic chemicals contributes to air and water pollution.

After paper bags are made, they must be transported to its location. According to the Environmental Literacy Council, it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags that can be transported by a single truck full of plastic bags. This is due to plastic bags' light weight and compact nature. Transportation, in of itself, creates additional emissions. This is important because there are no paper mills in California and these transportation modes have to cross state lines, greatly increasing emissions.

So what is the best solution? People on both the environmental and plastic industry side believe that applying a levy to both plastic and paper bags is a fair solution.

"A ban is not the right answer," said Browne, Crown Poly's General Manager. "Consumers have the right to choose what they want, while the government has to educate consumers as to what a better choice is."

While no other city in the world has attempted to ban both paper and plastic bags, only one city in the country has decided to levy both. In 2010, Washington, D.C. passed a bill that placed a 5-cent tax on all paper and plastic bags, with the goal of raising $3.5 million from the tax to clean up the Anacostia River. According to the Wall Street Journal, after nine months, it was estimated that the city saw a 60 percent reduction in all bags handed out.

People walk with groceries in plastic bags in Chinatown on March 28, 2007 in San Francisco | Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images
People walk with groceries in plastic bags in Chinatown on March 28, 2007 in San Francisco | Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images

San Francisco, which only banned plastic bags, recently expanded its current ordinance by applying the plastic bag ban to retailers citywide, instead of just large supermarkets and pharmacies, and imposing a minimum 10-cent fee on paper bags.

While Tamminen from Seventh Generation Advisors agrees that levying both bags is the best solution she emphasizes that it isn't plausible right now.

"I think that putting some kind of fee on bags is ideal because you internalize the cost," said Tamminen. "That has been proven to be more successful [than bans] but we don't have that option in California due to AB 2449."

Passed in 2006, AB 2449 is a pilot program requiring large grocery stores to create an in-store recycling program for the collection and recycling of plastic bags. Plastic bag manufacturers are required to work with grocery stores to ensure plastic bags are properly collected and recycled. AB 2449 also prohibits cities from levying plastic bags, which has essentially helped create the bans we currently see in California.

"It is interesting to see the industries' efforts, in a way, is backfiring on them now," said Kirsten James, Director of Water Quality at Heal the Bay. "Now municipalities are just going with the more aggressive route."

The Los Angeles city ban would include all single-use bags, including plastic, paper, biodegradable, and compostable bags. The proposal would apply to at least 7,500 retailers and failure to obey the ban would cost businesses $250-$500 a day.

"The time is now," stated James. "The city of L.A. has a chance to be a true leader in one of the most progressive policies we have ever seen before us."

Even when AB 2449 ends on January 1, 2013 and the option to levy plastic bags can be apart of the discussion, a bag fee might not be the best solution. While placing a levy on bags is the most convenient proposed solution to the litter problem, the bag tax has been subject to, what a Beacon Hill Institute Impact Report called, the "rebound effect." After the initial shock of the tax wears off, consumptions of bags continues to increase.

Ireland, which imposed a 15-cent per bag levy in 2002, saw this happen after an initial bag reduction of almost 90 percent. However, the country saw the sale of heavy-gauge garbage bags and other plastic bag products increase by 400 percent as people started using these bags as trash liners and pet cleaners to replace grocery bags. A "rebound effect" soon followed as people decided it was cheaper and easier to pay the 15-cent fee for a plastic grocery bag they could use multiple times. In 2007, to reverse the trend, Ireland increased bag taxes to 22 cents per bag.

While the fate of the Los Angeles bag ban initiative will soon be decided, one thing everyone can agree on is that there needs to be a solution to this problem on a statewide level. Having municipalities with different bag laws is difficult for businesses and confuses consumers.

"Because L.A. is a huge population center in the state, I'm hoping that if this passes, it will push the statewide effort so there is consistent policy on a state level," said James.

Reusable grocery bags made from neither paper nor plastic sold at a Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, CA in 2008 | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Reusable grocery bags made from neither paper nor plastic sold at a Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, CA in 2008 | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Whether the city decides to ban both plastic and paper, only ban plastic or levy one or both, the end result is to ultimately switch to reusable bags. There are many companies in California, like Project Greenbag, that make lead-free, machine washable canvas bags.

Although the battle of the bag is a step in the right direction, a healthier environment cannot be achieved until society commits 100 percent to reducing waste, at all levels. The "rebound effect" that plagued Ireland's initial success is proof of this: In the end, consumers will do what is easiest for them.

"It's hard to ask people to change their daily routine," said Tamminen. "But hopefully people will start to understand the gravity of our environmental situation and commit to a greener lifestyle."

While decomposing last night's leftovers or trading in that V8 for a hydro-electric-solar powered mini car might not be easiest transition to make, there are baby steps that can be taken for a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Bring a coffee mug to Starbucks, recycle take-out containers, walk to the corner store, and yes, leave a couple reusable bags in the car. Just follow the rule that was taught in middle school: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

As for Bangladesh, after banning plastic bags the country has seen a dramatic shift towards reusable bags. While the area is still susceptible to flooding the government has been spending millions in trying to remove something else from the drains. The main culprit now?


L.A.'s Proposed Bag Ban, Explained

On Wednesday, May 21 the L.A. City Council will vote on a major step in the process of banning single-use bags (Update: Read what happened here). Here's what it proposes to do, according to the office of Councilmember Paul Koretz, who proposed it:

  • Ban Plastic Bags: Once the law goes into effect, there's six-month grace period before they disappear from big retailers, followed by small retailers after another six months.
  • Ban Paper Bags: Once the law goes into effect, there's six-month grace period before big retailers can charge 10 cents per bag. After another six months, small retailers can charge that, too. And a year after that, paper bags would disappear from those stores.

If approved this week, the process of banning bags does not begin just yet. Wednesday's motion would set off a series of steps including drafting an Environmental Impact Report and, later, the actual ordinance language. All of that must be approved by the city council and mayor. When all is said and done, it could be another year before bags start disappearing from some 7,500 businesses, primarily supermarkets and grocery and convenience stores.- Zach Behrens

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