Let me start by saying that Plastics News does not like plastic bag bans.
That's sort of an inside joke. Steve Toloken, our news editor/international, wrote a very good post this week in his “BRICS and plastics” blog on PlasticsNews.com, which he started by saying that he, personally, likes plastic bag bans.
Steve and I went back and forth on the topic in a series of emails and phone calls. Not because I had a problem with his post (headline: “Why the plastics industry should be OK with limits on plastic bags”). I just wanted to be sure that he really meant that he likes bag bans.
I thought that maybe he actually likes taxes or fees, or something short of a ban. I thought Steve might prefer something that discourages people from using too many single-use plastic bags, but stops short of actually making bags illegal.
OK, maybe it was wishful thinking. It's human nature to want people to agree with your opinion. Unless you're one of those people who just likes to argue.
Neither Steve nor I are one of those people. So I think it stressed us both out a little that we disagreed.
Experience and culture
I live in Detroit, where I can choose to bring reusable bags to the Eastern Market or grocery store — and I often do. But if I forget, or if I need some bags to clean up after our Boston terrier, I can get just about as many as I need for free.
If they weren't free, I would buy them, because I reuse every single bag I get. And I properly dispose of them — mine aren't ending up as litter or marine debris.
Steve, on the other hand, lived in China for about eight years, where he paid the equivalent of about 8 U.S. cents per bag. He liked that, because — as he put it — bag fees are a small reminder to armchair environmentalists like him to think about packaging and bring his own bags to the store.
Now he's in Virginia, and he feels that the ability to get as many free bags as he wants is wasteful.
I suspect our experience in very different cultures is playing a role in how we feel about the issue.
This bag issue has the potential to have a huge impact on the future of the plastics industry. That's because in less than 15 months, voters in California will decide whether to allow or reject a state law that would ban single-use plastic bags statewide.
And it's shaping up to be an epic battle.
Plastic bag makers led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance (an affiliate of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.) say the ban would kill local jobs, funnel profits to grocery stores, and have no real benefit to the environment. They managed to get more than 800,000 people to sign petitions to force a referendum that could reverse the ban, which otherwise would have taken affect this month.
Their most convincing arguments were that bans would hurt the economy, and that low-income people can't afford expensive reusable bags. People tend to vote with their pocketbook.
The plastics industry spent $3.5 million to get the referendum on the ballot, and it will likely spend at least $25 million more in the next year to convince voters to overturn the ban.
Is it worth all that money, especially in a state where many larger communities already have local bans?
I think it is. This is shaping up to be the last word on the debate. Consider this: the California Legislature considered — and rejected — a statewide bag ban for six years in a row before one finally passed. And it snuck through at the last minute, with behind-the-scenes haggling involving the groceries and unions.
This issue has been contentious for a long time. Now this referendum has the potential to say, finally, how the public really feels about it. Let the people vote, and the chips fall.
Plus, the plastics industry has an opportunity here to make its case about the sustainability record of plastics — not just plastic bags, but all plastics. There's a lot being said about bags and litter, marine debris, recyclability and sustainability. Many plastics industry people feel that if they can make their case to the public, and make the argument about science and facts instead of emotion, plastics will win the debate. Here's their opportunity.
Who has the last word?
Steve's opinion is that the plastics industry is making a mistake to link its public image so closely to what he calls a small, lower-value use of the material. It's an interesting point, and I'm starting to hear some plastics industry executives say the same thing.
Plastics News' stance is that bans and taxes that encourage replacing plastic products with less-sustainable alternative materials must be discouraged.
It's not that we support wasteful consumption of single-use plastics. Sustainability must be a priority for the long-term health of the plastics industry, and Americans have become too comfortable in their habit of throwing away used plastics items.
Some readers will agree with Steve. I don't want to have the last word on this issue. No matter how you feel, send us a letter, or post a comment on Steve's blog or on this column online. We're happy to keep the conversation going, and to let our readers have the last word.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Tweet him at @donloepp, or Steve Toloken @Steve_Toloken.