Commentary

Arguments Against Banning Plastic Bags Don’t Hold Water

By TERESA HAGEN | Jan 24, 2018

Back in December 1967, his Pasadena neighbor had “just one word” for Benjamin Braddock: plastics. Fast forward 50 years and that “one word” from “The Graduate” has become a flashpoint for environmentalists, businesses and communities nationwide.

The controversy touched down in our little piece of paradise last November when Long Beach Township became the first municipality on the Island to limit single-use plastic bags. I’m not going to reiterate the shocking statistics that have already been so well documented by others in this newspaper. Instead, I’m going to try to answer some of the objections I’ve heard against the ordinance.

“My Plastic Grocery Bag Is Recyclable”:
Whenever we talk about limiting single-use plastic bags, someone invariably argues that his or her grocery bags are “recyclable.” And they may very well be. They may even have the familiar trio of green arrows chasing one another, but that doesn’t make them safe for the environment.

Still, you can’t blame people for being confused; environmentalism is a fairly new phenomenon and there’s an awful lot of misleading information out there. Moreover, some companies even deliberately mislead consumers by making false claims of environmental benefits. It’s called “green washing.”

To help consumers separate (pun intended) the recyclable from the biodegradable from the compostable, the Federal Trade Commission has created what it calls “Green Guides.”

Here’s what the FTC has to say: If a product “can be collected, separated or otherwise recovered from the waste stream for reuse or use in the manufacturing or assembling of another item,” it meets the commission’s definition of recycling.

Sounds good, huh? Plastic bags can be made into other things. But the truth is: They never really go away! Unlike paper, they do not “biodegrade” (break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass). The most common – a.k.a., the ubiquitous grocery bag – are made of polyethylene, a petroleum-based polymer that cannot biodegrade, but simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of, you guessed it, plastic!

It’s these so-called “micro plastics” (about the size of a sesame seed) that make their way into the food chain and eventually our bodies. My generation may not see tangible evidence of these “endocrine disruptors,” but scientists warn that our children and grandchildren may suffer the effects: delayed development, mental impairment and hormonal imbalances.

So please, let’s not pretend that our grocery bags are safe just because they’re “recyclable.” There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives. It would be irresponsible not to use them.

“Plastic Bags Don’t Pollute, People Pollute!”: This is the rallying cry of people who believe more “education” will solve our plastic problem. Way back in 1970, coincidentally the same year of the first Earth Day, President Nixon signed the Resource Recovery Act that tasked the EPA with developing new ways to deal with solid waste. Since then, schools and communities have hosted thousands of events stressing the Three R’s, “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

So how’s that working? In 2016, one trillion plastic bags were used worldwide and less than 5 percent of those were recycled. We Americans have a dismal record, recycling only 0.6 percent of the 100 billion plastic bags we use each year.

Education is great, but as ever, knowing something and doing it are vastly different.

“Plastic Bags Are Safer!”: These people like to cite a study linking an upsurge in E. coli and other food-borne illnesses to canvas or cotton reusable grocery bags, a study funded by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing plastic bag manufacturers, and one that has been debunked many times since it was published in 2007.

A later study, by the University of Arizona and the Loma Linda School of Public Health, did discover E. coli in 8 percent of all reusable bags they surveyed, but three-quarters of the participants admitted to not separating meat from vegetables and only 3 percent cleaned their bags regularly, which eliminates 99 percent of all pathogens.

Canvas and cotton bags are perfectly safe if you follow the same precautions you’d use in your own kitchen: separating meat and fish from other groceries and thoroughly washing any containers used for food. I use a cooler bag for meat and fish that can be spritzed with a bleach solution and canvas for everything else. Is it inconvenient? Not really, since I find them easier to load, carry and unload.

“Paper Bags Lead to Deforestation!”:
This argument might carry some weight if it were valid. But the choice is not between plastic and paper. The smart choice is reusable cotton or canvas, both renewable and eco-friendly sources.

“Limiting Single-Use Plastic Is Government Overreach!”: If asked, we all could list hundreds of instances when the government interferes in our lives for the good and safety of the population at large: speed limits on our highways, bans on deadly pesticides and chemicals, fire safety restrictions on buildings, minimum wage requirements … the list goes on and on. Yet no one would argue against them.

There are many other rationales for continuing to use plastic: It adds to business costs, consumers will be inconvenienced, yadda, yadda, yadda. All could be debunked if space permitted. But it doesn’t. So I’ll just leave you with my own No. 1 reason for carrying reusable eco-friendly bags whenever I shop: I’ve never seen a whale or a dolphin or a deer or a bird choked or strangled by a canvas bag.

Teresa Hagan lives in North Beach.


 

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