A coalition of California cities hopes a new, detailed analysis of existing studies of the environmental impact of carryout bags will help cities throughout the state enact bans on plastic bags and place fees on all other single-use carryout bags, including paper and biodegradable bags.
Based on the analysis, all single-use carryout bags are problematic, and the only sensible environmental policy is to dis- courage [their use] and encourage the use of reusable bags, said Carol Misseldine, coordinator of Green Cities California, in a March 8 phone interview after the coalition released its Master Environmental Assessment on single-use and reusable bags.
There are dozens and dozens of cities out there ready to implement plastic bag bans and some type of fee on all other single-use bags, Misseldine said. We are hoping that this report can be used by local governments to prepare the environmental impact reviews needed to assess the potential impacts of such ordinances and enable them to enact laws that withstand legal scrutiny.
The study was commissioned by GCC and conducted by consulting firm ICF International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.
Since 2006, more than two dozen California communities have tried to implement plastic bag bans, but many have pulled back their efforts because of the threat of lawsuits. Others, such as Manhattan Beach, Calif., have seen their bans challenged by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition and, ultimately, overturned in court.
There are 12 plastic bag bans in the U.S., four of them in the California cities of San Francisco, Fairfax, Palo Alto and Malibu. The District of Columbia also has a 5-cent tax on single-use plastic carryout bags.
Both the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition and the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council declined to comment on the potential effect of the Green Cities environmental assessment.
Whether the report helps or hinders communities looking at bans may depend on how each piece of legislation is structured, and how legislators and courts view the findings of the assessment, which examined 65 reports and 15 life-cycle assessments conducted over the last 20 years.
The Green Cities analysis also found that reusable bags have significantly lower environmental impacts than paper, plastic or biodegradable bags, on a per-use basis, provided the reusable bags are used at least three times. But the report also found there are environmental impacts from all single-use bags, and that, in some areas, the effect of paper and biodegradable bags was worse.
The ACC and the plastic bag industry have made a valid point that if you ban plastic bags, people will use more paper and that, in many ways, paper bags are more problematic than plastic bags, Misseldine said.
While plastic bags have a huge impact on marine debris, litter and wildlife, the analysis found that paper bags have a greater negative impact than plastic bags on greenhouse gas emissions, ground-level ozone formation, atmospheric acidification and water consumption, Misseldine said.
In addition, the results of the study indicate that biodegradable bags are just as bad, and worse in some ways, than both plastic and paper bags, Misseldine said.
Biodegradable bags impact marine life and litter the same as plastics and don't break down except in industrial composts, so they are just as devastating to wildlife. And they are just as bad when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions because they release methane gas in landfills. They are clearly not the solution we were hoping they would be, she said.
The executive summary adds: Although biodegradable bags are thought to be an eco-friendly alternative to [high density polyethylene] plastic bags, they have greater environmental impacts at manufacture, resulting in more [greenhouse gas] emissions and more water consumption than conventional plastic bags.
Still, Misseldine said she believes the study will enable cities to enact laws that simultaneously ban plastic bags and place a fee of 10-25 cents on all other single-use bags, because laws crafted in that fashion are likely to reduce all single-use bag use.
We can't put a fee on plastic bags, as that is prohibited by the state Legislature, Misseldine said. So a seamless way to reduce bag use is to ban plastic bags and put a fee on all other single-use bags in order to send a signal to consumers to bring their own reusable bag.
If we put fees at checkout counters of 10-25 cents, it will dramatically reduce single-use bags because it is a powerful economic signal that will affect consumer behavior, she said. I believe there will be a cascade of ordinances that do precisely that. Equally as important, she said, the study will help cities defray a significant portion of the cost of an environmental impact report (EIR), which some have estimated to be as high as $250,000. It also provides up to 80 percent of the content needed, she added.
An EIR must further show the local impact of proposed legislation and suggest alternatives and ways to mitigate the impact.
According to the study, plastic bags account for 0.3 percent of the total California waste stream. Of that total, grocery bags are estimated to make up 44 percent by weight, making plastic carryout bags about 0.13 percent of the California waste stream. Those numbers do not include plastic produce bags.
The Green Cities Coalition was formed by 11 cities and one county in California: Berkeley, Hayward, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Richmond, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and San Francisco County.
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