I was surprised to read Steve Toloken's blog on July 21, “Why the plastics industry should be OK with limits on plastic bags.” The article defended outrageous fees for plastic grocery bags and even accepted that a ban on bags was a good thing.
Toloken mentions a fee charged in China of approximately 8 cents per bag. The number I repeatedly hear is more like 15 cents per bag in the United States. This fee is outrageous in my opinion. Why? Because there is less than 1 cent worth of plastic resin and additives in a plastic grocery bag. Processing fees for each bag are essentially negligible. But even if they were to double the total cost to manufacture each bag, how can charging a punitive fee equal to 7 to 15 times the value of a legitimate, legal product that does what it is intended to do ever be justified?
Of course the issue of single-use grocery bags is that they are destined for a one-way trip to the landfill. Unfortunately this is essentially true. Plastic grocery bags should bear the cost for their disposal. A quick Internet search shows the average disposal costs for a landfill is between $10 and $80 per ton. Simple math shows that this equates to less than one tenth of a cent per plastic bag. For this reason, assessing such a high per bag fee is unreasonable.
I understand that the fee is intended to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags during a trip to the grocery store. I assert that this is misguided at best and simply does not work. I also do not believe that it is necessary to reiterate all of the benefits that plastic bags provide over paper or cloth in a plastics industry trade publication.
We, members of the plastic industry, know the benefits that plastic bags provide and the data that is available that shows that plastic bags, even single-use bags are better for the environment than paper or cloth. However, the public's perception is the opposite. Bag fees and outright bans promote this perception even as the science proves otherwise.
Bag fees and bag bans are politically expedient threats to our industry that use emotion rather than science to eliminate a significant sector of our industry and the jobs associated with that. What are the fees used for? Are they set aside in support of R&D to research new bag materials that are compostable and biodegradable? Is the money used to set up new practical methods of collection of bags for recycling? Or new recycling methods or material handling methods to make the recycling of lightweight films economical? No. Many would consider this to be corporate welfare. The money is simply absorbed into the general fund to be used like the rest of tax money for our bloated government, or the grocers become part of this scheme in that they get to keep the fees as revenue.
So what do we do if we are responsible, environmentally conscious citizens of this planet? We need to encourage new material and compound development. A single-use plastic bag must have the following properties:
• It must have sufficient tensile strength to carry the groceries loaded into it.
• It must have sufficient puncture resistance to protect against sharp packages.
• It must have sufficient tear resistance so that if it is punctured the bag doesn't just rip open dumping the contents all over the parking lot.
• It must use the absolute minimum amount of material possible to achieve the above properties and continually be improved to use less material as possible.
• It must be very low cost — if we want to replace polyethylene bags, the replacement must cost the same or less. Developing more costly materials under the guise that people should be willing to pay more to protect the environment is naive and is the same thinking that leads to bag fees.
• And finally — once it has been used it must go away!
Since the 1970s, items that no longer retained value were simply discarded. Litter, municipal trash, landfill, oceans, wherever — as long as it wasn't my problem anymore. Someone else can deal with it.
Thankfully that is no longer an acceptable viewpoint (at least not in the West). Recycling is the best current answer. But recycle rates for plastic bags remain very low. New technology needs to be developed for simpler and more efficient collection, sorting and processing to make recycling of thin films economically attractive. Some companies are working on this.
Compostable bags and biodegradable bags that are low cost, have high strength properties and do not contaminate the recycling streams should be pursued. The effects of new materials on the recycling stream must be considered. Energy reclamation through incineration is another technology that is often overlooked.
The reality in the 21st century is that the vast majority of our society gets their goods from grocery stores. This is significantly different from the first half of the 20th century when carrying a tote was the answer. Grocery bags address the issue of getting stuff home from the market. Thin plastic bags do this more efficiently with minimal energy usage, minimal material usage and a smaller impact on the environment than the other options. Now we need to find a way to make a single-use bag be truly single-use in that it really goes away after its value has been consumed. Bag fees and bans are not the answer and our industry should be fighting these political reactions with data and solutions based on science.
Kenneth W. Russell
Optimized Compounds LLC