Personally, I like plastic bag bans.
Maybe I should rephrase that, since I work for Plastics News, and some people may be getting ready to pin this to the wall and throw darts at it.
I don't see the big deal about charging fees for plastic bags, or having other restrictions like bans to encourage less use of excessive, disposable packaging. I also don't have a problem with fees for paper bags or polystyrene food containers.
They're a small reminder to armchair environmentalists like me to think about packaging use and bring our own bags or takeout containers.
I actually miss the plastic bag fee from when I lived in China, where they charged the equivalent of about 8 U.S. cents a bag. In Virginia, where I am now, it seems the feeling is we should be able to use as many free plastic bags as we want, and not think so much about any negative side effects.
Right now in the U.S., California's becoming the chief battleground.
The plastic industry has spent $3.5 million to get a referendum on the ballot there next year hoping to get voters to overrule the Legislature's statewide ban on free plastic bags.
The head of one plastics trade group predicts the industry will spend another $25 million ahead of the vote to try to convince the public to overturn the ban.
Speaking only for myself, as a Plastics News journalist but not for this newspaper, that seems like a mistake.
For starters, we're in an era of great concern about marine pollution and plastics. Institutions not normally associated with environmental causes, like the Papacy, now write detailed position papers on environmental degradation and climate change.
(You can read Pope Francis's widely covered encyclical from June where he urges the flock to use less plastic and paper as the first in his list of topics for environmental education, and he discusses ocean pollution at some length.)
Don't get me wrong: we all love the convenience of plastic bags and they're good products. Many of them are reused for a variety of purposes.
And I have sympathy for the argument that some feel bans are a step too far, and that fees on plastic bags are a better alternative than an outright ban.
But fighting to preserve our right to get as many flimsy plastic bags as we want for free, as the industry is doing, is wasteful and ignores the megatrends in resource conservation. (As an aside, I would include bottle bills in the same argument as a pro-recycling and anti-waste measure.)
I heard an interview recently with agronomist and journalist Joel Bourne where he said that to deal with the combination of rapid population growth (9.6 billion people by 2050) and rising living standards worldwide, we're going to have to grow as much food in the next 40 years as we have since agriculture started 10,000 years ago.
Go to any trade show in the developing world, and you hear a lot of plastics industry people talking excitedly about the money they can make from those rising middle classes globally, with all the plastic that will be used in daily life, for packaging, for electronics, for buildings, you name it.
But what gets less attention at those events is what the industry can do to help mitigate the downsides of the extra trash that will come with so much more consumption.
Countries like Bangladesh have seen plastics use grow four-fold in 25 years, as this PN story noted, leading to rising concern over waste management and plastics in the developing world, a point that industry executives are now readily acknowledging.
A cheap, disposable, once or twice-used plastic bag doesn't fit into the model we need to move toward (even if it gets a second, brief life a dog poop bag or something else the industry groups like to highlight on twitter feeds).
In my opinion, the plastics industry makes a mistake to link its public image so closely to one small, lower value use of the material like bags, by pushing for a referendum as its doing in California.
Plastics as a material have a lot of strong environmental points. For one example, today's cars are 50 percent plastic by volume but only 10 percent by weight. Plastics are crucial in making cars lighter and more fuel efficient.
Take away plastics (as some ‘plastics-free' bloggers seem to advocate) and we have heavier, more polluting cars that use more gas. We're worse off environmentally.
Those are the kinds of uses the industry and society should be focusing on. Not defending free plastic bags forever.
Plastic bags also draw serious questions from local governments, who bear the costs of cleaning up litter.
Local governments across California signed on to the bag law. This podcast about recycling includes comments from Seattle's director of solid waste talking about single plastic bags being a contaminant in their systems, and a journalist observing bags gumming up machinery at a municipal recycling facility in Maryland.
Advocates for the bag ban in California argue they account for between 8 and 25 percent of litter cleanup costs for California cities (http://bit.ly/1EfO2cb and http://on.nrdc.org/1Dr0MHN), although others like the National Center for Policy Analysis contend that reducing bag use does not save cities money. (http://www.ncpa.org/pub/st353)
Plastics industry trade groups have argued prominently and specifically in our newspaper that an attack on plastic bags means attacks on other plastic products will follow, sort of a domino theory of plastics and environmental politics.
Similar to the arguments about Communism and Southeast Asia in the 1960s, if you don't stop bans on bags, you'll fight bans on other plastics products.
I don't think that's true. If, over time, we use less plastics in bags —and it's only a very small part of the industry — I don't see it having any big impact on other plastics products. The public doesn't make those links.
I'm interested how others see it, but it seems a stretch to make the “domino” argument industry groups do.
It could do the opposite, in fact, by clearing out space in the debate for the industry to focus public attention on more sustainable plastic uses than disposable packaging that we should work to phase out anyway.
In the 1990s, the industry spent between $20 million and $25 million a year on national TV ad campaigns touting the benefits of plastics as a whole to society.
Now it's going to spend that much on fighting a ban on one product that's only a minor part of the plastics stream. That seems like a misguided use of industry resources.