Inside Plastic Bans

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Plastic bags photodegrade, meaning they slowly break down into smaller and smaller bits that can contaminate soils and waterways. Photo: Amanda Wills,

San Francisco made history when it became the first city to officially ban plastic shopping bags in 2007, making it a pioneer of a rapidly growing trend – the outlawing of common to-go plastic products, such as bags and foam polystyrene containers.

In many cases, the main objective when passing these types of bans or fees is to ultimately reduce the amount of litter.

According to Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, plastic bags and polystyrene waste, while two separate issues, make up a large amount of the city’s waste stream. In fact, he says the City Council estimates that New Yorkers use about one billion bags each year.

However, the American Chemistry Council says the increased bans and fees are not a solution to the litter problem.

“The thing to know overall is that plastic bag bans and fees don’t work, they just cause shifts to an alternative,” says Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the ACC. “What we think does work is an increase in recycling. It works well for other products as well, and plastic bag and film recycling has been growing around the country. For 2005 to 2007, it went up by 27 percent to 830 million pounds per year.”

But Goldstein says the problem is actually the continued increase in production of plastic, which, he says, has led to more litter.

“These bags are derived from fossil fuels and are just for temporary use,” he explains. “Disposal creates a host of environmental problems […] It’s safe to say that even in a city like New York – which is no environmental paradise – plastic bags are a nuisance; they are one of the most visible forms of pollution. They litter roadways, beaches, parkland, clog our storm drains, hang from our trees and are a threat when they get into our local waterways.”

“The long-term solution is using more durable products. It’s usually not one size fits all,” Goldstein says. “We agree that the solution to the ever-mounting use of bags is not a step up in the usage of paper. The way to address this issue is to increase reliance on reusable bags and grocery sacks, which is taking place in Europe and is beginning to catch on here in some American jurisdictions.”

The San Fran litter audit

San Francisco is one such jurisdiction that has implemented several laws in an effort to move towards zero waste. The city was the first to officially ban polystyrene to-go containers and plastic bags. San Francisco now boasts a recycling rate of 72 percent – the highest in the nation. But should this high number be credited, in part, to the plastic bans?

In 2008, the City of San Francisco conducted a litter audit of 132 sites on April 7-18, 2008. This audit was conducted at approximately the same time of year in 2008 as in the previous audit (conducted April 9-20, 2007). The 2007 audit observed an average of 36 items of large litter per site, which decreased 17 percent to 30 items of large litter per site in 2008 (3,973/132 sites).

According to the audit, “The largest category of large litter observed, at 664 litter pieces, was non-branded paper napkins and paper towels. This is a similar result from the 2007 audit, where napkins were the second most significant category (570 pieces of large litter in 2007). Printed paper materials were the second most significant litter category at 380 items, followed closely by miscellaneous paper, last year’s most significant large litter category.”

“The second most significant material type observed was plastic materials […] Plastic bags including retail sacks, zipper bags represented 4.3 percent of total large litter (172 items out of 3,973). Plastic bags represented 73 percent of bag litter, as observed in the 2008 litter audit. Plastic bags with or without brand marking on them (i.e. grocery bags) represented 69 percent of the litter in this category, and 4 percent of total litter. Paper bags collectively accounted for 24 percent of this sub-category, with non-retail paper bags (like lunch bags) representing 18 percent of the sub-category.”

Christman says what was seen with the ban was an actual increase in litter of other materials.

“There has been a shift back to paper bags, which is double the greenhouse gas emissions [it takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper], and dramatically increases waste by about 80 percent,” he says. “One of the reasons people talk about bans is to reduce litter, but this didn’t do anything to reduce litter. And it really didn’t do anything to address this.”

Nevertheless, San Francisco has sparked a trend – 22 other coastal California towns are prohibiting the use of polystyrene takeout containers, and other major West Coast cities are considering plastic bag bans or fees.

Read more
Styrofoam Ban Grows in California

Seattle’s heated plastic bag fee

In the summer of 2008, Seattle City Council initially voted to impose a 20-cent fee on all disposable shopping bags. While the fee was supposed to take place on Jan. 1 of this year, the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA) of the American Chemistry Council opposed the move and took action to block the fee. The Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, funded by PBA, the Washington Food Industry and 7-Eleven gathered enough voter signatures to put the measure on 2009’s primary ballot. In protest, local grassroots organizations launched the Seattle Green Bag Campaign in support of the legislation.

The controversial debate came to a close last August when residents voted “no” on the measure.

“Seattle passed a tax on bags, and was met with a huge outcry, and the voters rejected this tax. If you look back at the survey before passing the tax, the public was overwhelmingly opposed because 91 percent were already reusing or recycling their bags,” says Christman.

But Heather Trim of People of Puget Sound disagrees, saying the vote was unfair due to its ambiguity.

“They framed it to look like a tax. The wording on the position was very smart,” she says. “Plastic bags are a big deal because they are so visible in certain parts of the world. There are a ton of places that have passed these bans or fees because it really is a big deal for them. In many other countries, it is extremely effective because people go back to bringing their normal reusables.”

But while the Seattle Green Bag Campaign may have lost the vote, Trim says she still sees the silver lining of the issue.

“Even though we lost the battle, we will win the war in the long run because we did get consumer education,” she says. “We had a massive amount of public education about the issue and sustainability in general.”

Read more
Seattle Says ‘No’ to Bag Tax

And then there was foam

Three years after San Fransisco passed the first ban on foam to-go containers, more than 100 cities nationwide have passed polystyrene-related laws. Most recently, Chicago announced that it was considering a ban on polystyrene takeout containers that, if passed, would become effective on July 1.

“Adoption of this proposal would help protect public health while greatly reducing the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills,” says Alderman Edward M. Burke, citing the legislation’s preamble, which states that “toxic chemicals leach out of such products into the food that contain and threaten human health.”

But while polystyrene foam is extremely hard to recycle because 98 percent of the material is literally air, Christman says its crucial in the usage in some products, as there is no economical alternative. Furthermore, some communities in California have initiated drop-off programs for expanded polystyrene foam that have been successful as it is easier for recyclers when it is not mixed with other materials and potential contamination is minimized.

But the polystyrene waste is no doubt a huge issue, especially in areas where there are no curbside recycling options. NRDC’s Goldstein says although the material may be needed in some cases, there are other instances that are simply “unnecessary.” For example, New York City schools use 850,000 foam trays daily.

“Logic would tell you that there’s a better way for meeting the needs of our students,” he says. “It’s costly, since they are so light. It’s not the most economical commodity to recycle, and it represents a threat to marine life, a health threat in the manufacturing product and a threat to the air quality as it has been labeled a carcinogen.”

One possible alternative could be a new product from Ecovative designs called the EcoCradle – a foam substitute made from agricultural byproducts such as seed husks, which would normally be landfilled. Once the seed husks are wet, they are combined with mushroom roots, which act as a binding agent. The compostable fibers can literally be put in your garden to improve your topsoil. The product works best in shipping and packaging material for products weighing more than 15 pounds.

According to Ecovative Founder Eben Bayer, manufacturers will not incur an added expense to make the switch to this material as the price is comparable to its widely used polystyrene foam counterpart. You’ll be able to purchase furniture and consumer electronics packaged in EcoCradle starting this spring.

“Sometimes [polystyrene foam] is not absolutely necessary, and it’s just for convenience, but it contributes to a problem that takes decades to resolve,” Goldstein says. “If we can’t solve easy problems like this by replacing problematic products with substitutes, then the planet really is in trouble.”

Read more
Chicago Considers Ban on Foam To-Go Containers

What are your options?

A heated topic plastic bans may be, both sides agree that recycling and consumer education is the best way to handle plastics in the waste stream.

While more curbside programs do not accept polystyrene foam, there are several community programs that will recycle the material. A simple search on will pull up recyclers in your specific area.

If there are no programs that fit your needs or are near your location, AFPR offers a mail-in program for consumers. Average shipping fees range from $1.50 to $9, based on the total packaging weight and volume. Since polystyrene foam is extremely lightweight, it can be economically shipped to a regional location.

For plastic bags, also due to their light weight, most curbside programs do not accept plastic bags. They can easily get stuck inside machinery when recycled as well. However, most grocery stores throughout the U.S. now offer plastic bag recycling.

Read more
360: Recycling Plastic Bags
360: Recycling Plastic #6

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The American Chemistry Council is one of these partners.

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  1. As founder and Co-owner of Idea New Concepts is the second time that I read an article from Amanda and I have to say that she’s on top about any new changes and news about plastic bags problems.
    I feel that she writes about it with passion.
    The company thjat I am Co-Owner, works with green bags but when we have decided to start it we thought that the company could be not just a business but our environmental commitment.
    Congratulations Amanda!

  2. So what if takes 91% less energy to recycle pound of plastic than a pound of paper if people don’t recycle?

    Let’s face it, most people who choose plastic over paper at stores will *throw* away the bags in garbage instead of recycling. In that case, a ban on plastic seems much better option than hoping people will recycle. Not to mention, there are many communities that do not recycle plastic and people have become so confused on the what you can and cannot recycle, the uptake on recycling is still horribly low.

  3. Also, to clarify, In Chicagoland area, I noticed that Whole Foods does not take recycle bags, but neighborhood Jewel and Dominicks do. I really feel there has to be a national push on recycling, a consistent message on items recyclable, and having companies use only items that are either biodegradable or recyclable.

  4. I am glad to see that now Earth911 is starting to disclose that the The American Chemistry Council, representing the interests of plastic bag manufacturers, Bisphenol A, foam, and other plastic products is a funder of Earth 911. That is a key piece of information and it’s much appreciated.

    Plastic lasts hundreds of years in the environment. Who would use such a material for a product designed to be used for a few minutes or hours, then discarded? Future generations would look back at us wondering how we could be so stupid, and so barbaric.

    What about making manufacturers responsible for the end life of their products? No bans or taxes would be needed. If you want to make disposable bags, wether paper or plastic, or foam containers, or whatever, then be economically and legally responsible for their end life, including recovery and recycling.

    If we had that kind of legislation, which should be common sense, bans would not be needed.

  5. I use the disposable plastic bags for my kitchen garbage scraps. When I run out I ask my daughter for her bags….USE, REUSE, RECYCLE… This way I can take the garbage out every day.
    If plastic bags were banned (I think paper should be banned also due to recycling issues…)
    Then the only option for indoor garbage is to purchased plastic garbage can liners…..these are obviously thicker and even less environmentally safe.

  6. Manuel…. you really think that all manufacturers should be responsible for end of life disposal of their products? Taken to an exteme, what if we apply that to the auto industry. Should Ford or Toyota be responsible if someone, let’s say they’re drunk, crashes their car into a tree and leaves it broken on the side of the road? What you are saying is that individuals should NOT be responsible for the proper disposal of what they buy.

    I work for a bag manufacturer. We sell bags to distributors, who sell to stores, who give to their customers. The stores encourage recycling, WE encourage recycling, the consumer is encouraged to recycle. Instead, he tosses it out the window of the car. This is called littering, and is illegal. If manufacturers are given the sole responsibility of end of life disposal, why should Joe consumer worry about what happens to his bag? Just toss it. Not his problem. Your idea would basically encourage litter and improper disposal.

    I know we’re all worried about litter, but the solution to that is to stop people from littering. The biggest environmental problem we face on this planet is climate change, mostly caused by emissions from factories and cars. Eliminating a product that uses far fewer resources and creates far less greenhouse gasses than the alternatives is just silly. If you really think that a non-recyclable reusable bag made in a smog factory in China, and shipped halfway across the globe is more environmentally friendly than a locally made, 100% recyclable and lightweight plastic bag, you haven’t done your homework.

  7. Question on plastic bags in the landfill:

    I reuse my plastic bags from the grocery store as my kitty litter garbage bags. I then throw them in the garbage which are dumped in my city’s landfill. Am I harming the environment this way? If so, what is a better alternative?

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