When you see headlines like — “Are plastic grocery bags sacking the environment?” — on the Web site of a respected publication like National Geographic, then it looks like the battle is already lost.
Well, the battle isn't lost, but it looks like it's getting ready to heat up, and soon. The fight will be over bans and taxes on plastic bags.
It's not a new battle, to be sure. Environmentalists and paper bag makers have been bad-mouthing plastic bags for at least 20 years. But now, as product bans and taxes have gained traction elsewhere, it looks like the plastics industry will have to gear up to fight similar proposals in North America.
National Geographic's Sept. 2 story certainly is balanced, but it still doesn't paint a pretty picture: “The totes are everywhere. They sit balled up and stuffed into the one that hangs from the pantry door. They line bathroom trash bins. They carry clothes to the gym. They clutter landfills. They flap from trees. They float in the breeze. They clog roadside drains. They drift on the high seas. They fill sea turtle bellies.”
That pretty much summarizes the story. Plastics successfully have taken the bulk of the bag market — at least 80 percent — and consumers frequently find ingenious ways to reuse them. But many also end up as litter, which is finding its way to the far corners of the planet. One marine scientist predicts plastic bags will be washing up in Antarctica within 10 years.
The magazine suggests two solutions: a tax on plastic bags, and more widespread use of reusable shopping bags. You can be sure legislators and activists will spend more time looking at taxes than replacements. After all, it's impossible to mandate use of reusable bags, and a tax has the added benefit of generating revenue for the state. Ireland is touted as a success story — its tax equivalent to about 20 cents per bag has cut use about 95 percent and dramatically reduced bag litter, said Friends of the Irish Environment.
Sure, charging the public a fee for something they now get for free would cut consumption. And that's not all bad. Try, for example, ordering a single burger from a drive-through restaurant, and you know you're going to get it in a bag. The same goes for a single loaf of bread at a supermarket, or anything more than a pack of cigarettes and a gallon of milk at a convenience store.
But there's no need to single out plastic bags. Paper bags create litter too. And plastic bags are both reusable and recyclable — many groceries collect used bags and sell them to plastic lumber makers.
When the serious debate begins, you can be sure the plastics industry allies will point to the number of jobs that a tax or ban would threaten. But that argument didn't turn the tide in Taiwan, South Africa, Australia, India or other places that have considered legislation in recent months. If the jobs-vs.-the-environment argument didn't win in Africa, can there be any doubt of the outcome in California? (And, don't forget, the growth in bag imports means that a ban or tax here would have a big impact on bag makers in Asia, and they have little or no political clout here.)
To date, we have not seen a proposal to tax or ban bags that we can support. But we have no doubt that the idea will continue to win serious attention — and more headlines.
Meanwhile, as the industry prepares for debate, it must strongly support efforts to reduce litter and encourage reuse, recycling and proper disposal of plastic bags.