Plastic Bag Pollution

What If That Plastic Bag Cost You Money?

In Some Places, It Does


c.2004 Newhouse News Service

Alaskans call them "tundra ghosts" and "landfill snowbirds." In China, they're "white pollution." South Africans have sarcastically dubbed them their "national flower." Snagged in treetops in Ireland, they become "witches' knickers."

Since their introduction in the 1970s, handled plastic carry bags have become the world's favorite way to tote purchases. Light, cheap, strong, waterproof and durable, as many as a trillion are used each year. Most are trashed, a tiny fraction are recycled and a good many are littered or break free of waste bins and landfills.

It's a propensity that has led some countries to enact taxes and outright bans. Critics say the bags are not just a blight, but are wasteful, kill wildlife, pollute oceans and may be insinuating toxins into the food chain.

Americans used 1.3 billion pounds of plastic bags in 2001, according to Mastio & Co., a market research firm in St. Joseph, Mo. That's 100 billion bags, or 360 per year for every man, woman and child in the country.

Purchases are bagged almost reflexively.

"When I buy a birthday card, it goes into a plastic bag -- I buy one item and it goes into a plastic bag," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, an environmental group in Sacramento.

During a cleanup of coastal areas in the United States and 100 other countries last year, 354,294 bags -- most of them plastic -- were collected, according to the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. Plastic bags made up 5.4 percent of all beach debris, the fifth most common litter.

When whole, the bags can entangle or be eaten by birds, dolphins, whales and sea turtles. Those encounters can maim or kill.

More worrisome to Murray is this: The bags, which take up to 1,000 years to degrade, break into finer and finer particles circulating in the oceans.

A 2001 study by the Algalita Marine Foundation of Long Beach, Calif., sampled a Texas-sized garbage slick floating about 1,000 miles off San Francisco and found six times as much plastic as plankton, the tiny animals and plants at the bottom of the marine food chain. The next year, Algalita sampled just off Long Beach, where plankton are more concentrated, and found plastic particles still 2.5 times as plentiful.

A Japanese study found that beads of polyethylene plastic can concentrate toxins at up to 1 million times their strength in surrounding sea water. A British study found that ocean invertebrates such as barnacles and jelly fish can eat plastic fragments. That leads Murray to worry that "plastic particles are becoming vehicles for transferring toxins up the food chain."

But many countries find litter a compelling enough reason to act. Among them:

Ireland, which in 2002 began charging 19 cents for each disposable bag taken at the checkout, cutting use by 95 percent and raising millions of dollars for environmental programs. To ease the switch, many stores sold canvas bags; some offered "bags for life," replaced free when they wear out.

  • Taiwan cut use 69 percent when it instituted a 3-cent fee in 2001.

  • South Africa and one Indian province ban the flimsier bags, but allow thicker bags, which are more durable, less mobile and easier to recycle.

  • Bangladesh, where plastic carry bags were widely blamed for choking the drainage system and causing two devastating monsoon floods, has had a full ban on production and possession of all polyethylene bags since 2002.

  • Australia, where the government has set goals for merchants to reduce bag use or face the imposition of fees.

Meanwhile, the United States has seen anti-bag stirrings in California, Alaska and New York City.

In 1998, plastic grocery bags were banned in Galena, Alaska, a village of 850. "Bags blew out of the landfill and into the Yukon River, and there was even some evidence the salmon were eating them," said Cindy Pilot, director of the environmental department of the Louden Tribal Council, Galena's governing body.

With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the council handed out 2,000 free canvas bags and phased out plastics in the town's three stores. To date, nearly 40 other Alaskan villages have followed suit, said Bill Stokes of Palmer, Alaska, who helped formulate many of the bans with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Elsewhere in America, restriction efforts have been less successful. New Yorkers, fed up with bags snapping in the wind on Central Park trees, tried and failed to institute a 15-cent-per-bag levy in 2003. The same year in California, a bill proposing a 2-cent-per-bag tax, payable by the stores, died under heavy opposition from retailers and bag makers.

A current proposal in San Francisco would require big grocery chains to charge 25 cents per bag, paper as well as plastic. Several Los Angeles groups are working to advance the same idea, said Murray, of Californians Against Waste. This coming January, at the start of a new legislative session, Murray's group will push a quarter-per-plastic-bag fee statewide.

Bag makers argue that taxes don't work.

The Irish levy caused big jumps in paper bag use and sales of plastic trash bags, said Donna Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the Film and Bag Federation, a Washington, D.C., trade group. "If the goal is to get these things out of the waste stream, then it's not working," Dempsey said.

The answer, in the industry's view, is to increase recycling beyond the 1 percent of plastic bags the Environmental Protection Agency says are recycled now.

"There's a tremendous need for this material, but we have to get the system set up to collect it," said Frank Ruiz, spokesman for the California Bag and Film Alliance, a group of manufacturers and retailers who oppose fees.

Composite wood/plastic lumber companies are eager to get their hands on the bags, which are cheaper than other recycled plastics, said Mike Vatuna, director of bulk materials for Trex Company Inc. in Winchester, Va. Vatuna said Trex uses 35 million pounds of plastic bags each year and would like to have 100 million.

But while many supermarkets have recycling programs, most municipal recyclers don't. Bags tend to blow out of curbside recycling bins. They clog sorting equipment. Brokers reject much of what is collected as too contaminated with food or paper sales receipts.

Ruiz said Americans won't put up with bringing reusable bags to the store.

"In Europe, most stores are very small and people shop nearly every day," so they may need only a single reusable bag, he said. "Here it's a Saturday morning pilgrimage where you load the car up with 25 bags."

But Murray argues that many consumers, frustrated by plastic bag waste, will support bag fees.

"By putting this fee into that transaction, we're forcing everyone to think about it," he said -- "the checker putting the stuff in the bag, the consumer taking the bag and the retailer supplying the bag."

Oct. 21, 2004

Post-script: Many U.S. states have instituted bag restrictions and fees, including California. And concern is growing about the possible health effects of pervasive microparticles of plastics in our oceans, foodstuffs and waters.