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Last week Seattle, Washington, joined its neighbors in Oregon and California in banning plastic grocery bags. But is the ban more about image than sound environmental reasoning?

Bag facts

According to the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA) of the American Chemistry Council (1), plastic bags are an environmentally responsible choice.

  • They are fully recyclable and can be made into products such as backyard decking, park benches, playground equipment and…new bags!
  • They require 70% less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
  • They take up seven times less space than the same quantity of paper bags, which means fewer trucks, and hence less fossil fuels involved in delivering them to stores.
  • Pound for pound it takes 91% less energy to recycle plastic than paper.
  • The manufacturing process takes only 4% of the water required to manufacture paper bags.
  • 65% of Americans reuse their bags.

 

This information can be viewed with some skepticism since it is published by the plastics industry, but Earth911 corroborates many of the facts mentioned here. Data on the Earth911 web site (2) actually estimates bag reuse by consumers at 90%, well above the 65% figure estimated by the PBA. Furthermore, Earth911 reports that during production, plastic bags generate 50 percent less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and produce 80 percent less waste than paper alternatives.

So why the debate?

Despite the aforementioned facts, there are some real environmental concerns.

    • First, plastic bags are usually made of polyethelene, which is a petroleum or natural gas based product. Petroleum and natural gas are fossil fuels which are being rapidly depleted.
  • Most plastic bags are not biodegradable, and even those that are promoted as being biodegradable can take up to 200 years to break down. About 89 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. each year. According to the EPA we currently recycle about 13% of them.

 

The biggest argument against plastic bags, however, comes not in the form of resource conservation, but from an environmental health standpoint. The US EPA promotes banning plastic bags, but the basis for their support of this measure is due to the resulting litter and the dangers that it presents to wildlife.

About 9% of coastal litter is plastic bags according to a five year study conducted by the Ocean Conservancy (3). On land they pose an unsightly debris problem. But in the marine environment they are a deadly contaminant. Sea turtles, whales and other sea mammals mistake the bags for jelly fish or other food fish and attempt to eat them. Some choke in the process, but most die after successfully ingesting the bags which then block the digestive system. This results in a slow torturous death for the animal. Many of the affected species are already on the critically endangered list.

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