Cities in a number of Asian countries, including China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan, are currently on the warpath against plastic shopping bags.
The cities have passed local laws that ban such bags, on the basis that they clog sewers and drainage canals, cause street flooding, choke animals and are responsible for other forms of environmental damage.
China and Taiwan, for example, impose heavy fines on violators. Other countries are appealing for a switch to the production and use of biodegradable bags.
But this misses the point. People do not object to using biodegradable bags, and consider them a welcome return to the traditional practice of using shopping baskets and bags made from locally available materials — such as jute, abaca and cloth — that are less harmful to the environment.
What needs to be remembered is that plastic bags were made for a purpose, and that the main complaint is against the way that they are used — not their existence.
A multi-use product
Plastic bags were designed to satisfy a need. Thin plastic can do many things that paper, which is recommended as a good substitute for plastic, cannot. Indeed, there are ways in which thin plastic may be more useful than paper.
For example, plastic bags are widely appreciated for their use in wrapping food, and holding water and other wet goods. They are also useful as a protective lining for rubbish bins, as a protective wrap for delicate clothing material, or as a way of temporarily sealing roof and tap leaks.
These and many other functions make the plastic bag a versatile, practical invention of the twentieth century.
Another advantage of the plastic bag is that it is reusable. Although some plastic bags are too thin for reuse, the solution is to manufacture stronger and more durable plastic film bags, not discard them altogether.
One reason that plastic film bags are widely seen as an environmental nuisance is that most are non-biodegradable. But if they were manufactured from a biodegradable material — such as the bioplastics that are now being produced in some European countries — the main reason for banning them would disappear.
Even with a change of material, however, there is no guarantee that environmental damage from plastics would stop. This is because the 'evil' is not in the material used, but in the behaviour of those who do not know — or do not care — where, when and how to dispose of the product.
Moreover, governments cannot ignore the contribution to the economy of the thin plastics industry.
Australia, for example, has decided to reduce the use of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) thin plastic bags but not ban them because of the negative impact it would have on employment.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the plastics industry similarly generates hundreds of thousands of jobs in China, Malaysia and Thailand, which in 2005 jointly exported to the 239 million tonnes of plastic bags to the United States.
Good environmental management is key
The answer to the problems associated with thin plastic bag use is not a ban, but better management. The 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — of solid waste management (SWM) also apply to plastic bags.
But only a few countries in Asia have sound SWM systems, even though all of them have regulations on solid waste. This is a result of a general misconception that managing is the same as regulating.
Managing plastic bags means knowing how to use and store them properly so that they can be reused many times, and knowing how they can be recycled when their useful life has come to an end.
Guidelines on how to use, maintain, reuse, recover and recycle plastic bags are necessary, and recycling technologies for thin plastic bags are now widely available.
The guidelines should extend to the application of appropriate technologies for disposal when the materials have reached their ultimate limit for reuse and recycling.
Many materials need to be managed if they are not to harm the environment. Indeed, if not properly managed, paper can be a worse polluter than plastic bags; it occupies nine times as much space in landfills, and does not break down substantially faster than plastic.
The need for enforcement
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, paper bags generate 70 per cent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, because four times as much energy is required to produce them and 85 times as much energy to recycle them.
Indeed, as with anything that is designed for a purpose, both paper and plastic bags need to be managed to sustain their usefulness and prevent them from disrupting the balance in our ecosystems.
Regulating the use of plastic bags is necessary. But regulations are not enough; their enforcement is more important.
Banning plastic bags dismisses them as useless, and disregards their practical functionality, durability and affordability.
It is the misuse and improper disposal of plastic bags that is causing harm to the environment, not the product itself. A total ban on plastic bags will only gloss over the lack of an effective environmental management policy in a given country. It will not save the environment from the ill-effects of a 'throw-away' mentality.
Lilia Casanova is a former deputy director at the UN Environment Programme's International Environmental Technology Centre (UNEP-IETC) in Japan. She is currently the executive director of the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies, and a board member of the Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines.
This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Like cigarettes, plastic bags have recently gone from a tolerated nuisance to a widely despised and discouraged vice.
Last month, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers. Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a measure that would ban plastic bags from being dispensed by many retail businesses and require a charge of 10 cents or more for a recycled paper or reusable bag. The Massachusetts proposal may not become law this year, but it’s the latest sign that the plastic bag industry is losing this war. Already in Massachusetts, 32 towns and cities have passed bag bans or fees. So have at least 88 localities in California, including the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus cities and towns in more than a dozen other states and more than a dozen other countries.
The adverse impacts of plastic bags are undeniable: When they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking storm drains, littering streets, getting stuck in trees, and contaminating oceans, where fish, seabirds, and other marine animals eat them or get tangled up in them. As longtime plastic bag adversary Ian Frazier recently reported in The New Yorker, “In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, behind smaller debris such as cigarette butts, plastic straws, and bottle caps.” The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out bags every week, and has to spend $12.5 million a year to dispose of them.
Bag bans cut this litter off at the source: In San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags winding up in the city’s storm drains. Fees have a smaller, but still significant, effect. Washington, DC’s government estimates that its 5-cent bag tax has led to a 60 percent reduction in the number of these bags being used, although that figure is contested by other sources.
Is plastic really worse than paper?
But advocates of these laws and journalists who cover the issue often neglect to ask what will replace plastic bags and what the environmental impact of that replacement will be. People still need bags to bring home their groceries. And the most common substitute, paper bags, may be just as bad or worse, depending on the environmental problem you’re most concerned about.
That’s leading to a split in the anti-bag movement. Some bills, like in Massachusetts, try to reduce the use of paper bags as well as plastic, but still favor paper. Others, like in New York City, treat all single-use bags equally. Even then, the question remains as to whether single-use bags are necessarily always worse than reusable ones.
Studies of bags’ environmental impacts over their life cycle have reached widely varying conclusions. Some are funded by plastic industry groups, like the ironically named American Progressive Bag Alliance. Even studies conducted with the purest of intentions depend on any number of assumptions. How many plastic bags are replaced by one cotton tote bag? If a plastic bag is reused in the home as the garbage bag in a bathroom waste bin, does that reduce its footprint by eliminating the need for another small plastic garbage bag?
If your chief concern is climate change, things get even muddier. One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic. That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.
“People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact,” says David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined the research on the environmental impact of bag use. The reasons for paper’s higher carbon footprint are complex, but can mostly be understood as stemming from the fact that paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags. “Very broadly, carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object,” says Tyler. For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags.
Looking beyond climate change
Still, many environmentalists argue that plastic is worse than paper. Climate change, they say, isn’t the only form of environmental degradation to worry about. “Paper does have its own environmental consequences in terms of how much energy it takes to generate,” acknowledges Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “The big difference is that paper does biodegrade eventually. Plastic is a toxin that stays in the environment, marine animals ingest it, and it enters their bodies and then ours.”
Some social justice activists who work in low-income urban neighborhoods or communities of color also argue that plastic bags are a particular scourge. “A lot of the waste ends up in our communities,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, an environmental and social justice-oriented community organization in Brooklyn. “Plastic bags not only destroy the physical infrastructure,” she says, referring to the way they clog up storm drains and other systems, “they contribute to emissions.” And she points out that marine plastic pollution is a threat to low-income people who fish for their dinner: “So many frontline communities depend on food coming from the ocean.” That’s why her group supported New York City’s bag fee even though it’s more of a burden on lower-income citizens. A single mom, or someone working two jobs, is more likely to have to do her shopping in a rush on the way home from work than to go out specifically with a tote bag in hand. But for UPROSE, that concern is outweighed by the negative impacts of plastic bags on disadvantaged communities.
Increasingly, environmentalists are pushing for laws that include fees for all single-use bags, and that require paper bags to be made with recycled content, which could lower their carbon footprint. The measure now under consideration in Massachusetts, for example, would mandate that single-use paper bags contain at least 40 percent recycled fiber. That’s the percentage the Massachusetts Sierra Club has advocated for at the state level and when lobbying for municipal bag rules.
But what if reusable bags aren’t good either? As the Australian study noted, a cotton bag has major environmental impacts of its own. Only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides, the World Wildlife Fund reports. A pound of cotton requires more than 5,000 gallons of water on average, a thirst far greater than that of any vegetable and even most meats. And cotton, unlike paper, is not currently recycled in most places.
The Australian study concluded that the best option appears to be a reusable bag, but one made from recycled plastic, not cotton. “A substantial shift to more durable bags would deliver environmental gains through reductions in greenhouse gases, energy and water use, resource depletion and litter,” the study concluded. “The shift from one single-use bag to another single-use bag may improve one environmental outcome, but be offset by another environmental impact.”
But studies conducted in Australia or Europe have limited applicability in the US, particularly when you’re considering climate impact, because every country has a different energy mix. In fact, every region of the US has a different energy mix.
“There’s no easy answer,” says Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backed NYC’s bag fee. “There are so very many variables. Here’s just one tiny example: Does the paper for paper bags come from a recycled paper mill on Staten Island or a virgin forest in northern Canada? As far as I know, nobody has done the definitive analysis, which would necessarily need to have a large number of caveats and qualifications. Also, this question is something like asking, ‘Would you prefer to get a parking ticket or a tax assessment?’ It depends on the specifics, but it’s better to avoid both wherever possible.” Goldstein is confident that if people switch to reusable bags, even cotton ones, and use them consistently, that will ultimately be better for the environment.
The ideal city bag policy would probably involve charging for paper and plastic single-use bags, as New York City has decided to do, while giving out reusable recycled-plastic bags to those who need them, especially to low-income communities and seniors. (The crunchy rich should already have more than enough tote bags from PBS and Whole Foods.)
The larger takeaway is that no bag is free of environmental impact, whether that’s contributing to climate change, ocean pollution, water scarcity, or pesticide use. The instinct to favor reusable bags springs from an understandable urge to reduce our chronic overconsumption, but the bags we use are not the big problem.
“Eat one less meat dish a week—that’s what will have a real impact on the environment,” says Tyler. “It’s what we put in the bag at the grocery store that really matters.”