In case you haven't been paying attention, not everyone thinks plastic bag bans are a bad thing. Last week, Greenbiz.com senior editor Marc Gunther wrote a post in defense of plastic bags. Today, Stiv Wilson offers a counterpoint, "In Defense of Plastic Bag Bans." Wilson works for the 5 Gyres Institute, which is focused on plastic pollution. Close readers of Plastics News will also remember his name for the petition he started on change.org to encourage the National Park Service to ban single-use water bottles from at the Grand Canyon. It's clear that both Wilson and Gunther have a strong grasp of the issues related to plastic bags -- yet they come to opposite conclusions. To Wilson, the bottom line is that plastic does not biodegrade.
What's at issue is this: Plastic does not biodegrade in a meaningful if even comprehensible timeframe. Thus, some portion of it accumulates in the environment. The more we produce, consume, and recycle plastics, the more plastic will come into the world and accumulate in landfills, on land, in rivers, and the sea. Plastics at sea concentrate incredibly dangerous chemicals, fish eat plastic, and we eat fish. It's really that simple. This is why we care. It sure as hell isn't for the paycheck.But wait -- is biodegradability a good thing? We've heard from recyclers concerned that increasing use of biodegradable plastics and additives would hurt their business. Wilson points out that -- at least when it comes to plastic bags -- recycling isn't an issue. He estimates that the recycling rate for single-use plastic bags is about 1 percent. That figure might be low -- Plastics News estimated the bag recycling rate at 2 percent in 2008, and it's likely to have grown since then. But that's not a record to crow about. So what we've seen the past few years is instead of running on its record of bag recycling, the industry has been forced to respond to bans by talking about the potential to recycle more bags. Wilson knows that, and writes: "That plastics bags are 100 percent recyclable isn't the issue. It's that by a massive percentage they are not recycled. ... Furthermore, why are we investing in a system that has to fabricate bag recycling rates to trend positively, even though the fabricated trend still amounts for next to nothing? What society accepts a 4.3 percent efficacy rate in any system without abandoning it and going back to the drawing board?" Wilson's post won't be the last word -- but it's required reading for anyone interested in the bag ban debate.