Plastic Bags

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while but back in January I read an article in the SF Weekly (which I Ironically picked up off the street) about San Francisco’s recent ordinance banning plastic bags.

San Francisco is a city that enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world. And the city was certainly purring a little more than a year ago when it banned plastic shopping bags, which triggered adoring headlines around the globe. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the ban’s primary author, was fêted in publications from The Economist to People (which gave the photogenic supe a full-page spread). Locally, the ban was a hit: San Francisco was a national trendsetter and a world leader in the green movement.

For locals, this was change we could believe in — after all, it asked us to do nothing. The ban didn’t even ask us to think. The infinitesimal decision-making of “Paper or plastic?” was simply replaced by waddling off with armfuls of default paper bags. This, according to the ban’s backers, was progress. San Francisco had slain the plastic dragon, doing away with a detested petroleum product that littered our streets, endangered wildlife, and symbolized everything wrong with America’s consumerist, throwaway society. That the ban — which applies only to chains or large stores grossing more than $2 million yearly — did next to nothing to alter consumers’ throwaway behavior was largely left unsaid. One year later, it still is.

In that time, it has become apparent that many of the rationales used to justify the ban — such as its benefiting the environment and alleviating the city’s litter problems — are not playing out in the real world. Plastic bags induce a highly visceral reaction; they have been likened to “synthetic vermin,” and Mirkarimi described them to SF Weekly as “unearthly things.” But visceral hatred is generally not the best motivation for public policy — especially when scientific studies indicate that policy to be counterproductive.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s “paper calculator” — and factoring in the city’s requirement that bags be composed of at least 40 percent recycled material — the ecological consequences are staggering. That many paper bags weigh about 5,250 tons, which results in the felling of 72,000 trees, sulfur dioxide emissions of 91,200 pounds, the release of 21.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and the generation of 40 million gallons of wastewater.

In the past two decades, a number of “Life-Cycle Analyses” (LCAs) have measured the “cradle to grave” environmental impact of plastic and paper shopping bags. SF Weekly was unable to track down any that rated paper as being more environmentally beneficial overall. Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).

Several of these LCAs were commissioned by the plastics industry — yet Charles Lardner, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the paper industry does not dispute the studies’ findings. And a number of the studies were not connected to the plastics industry. A 2004 analysis by the French retail giant Carrefour found the most environmentally friendly bag to be a heavy-duty reusable plastic sack; paper bags were found to be the worst of all. Regarding so-called “biodegradable plastic,” while LCAs differ, several found it to require far more energy to produce and distribute than regular plastic. What’s more, it requires the cultivation of vast amounts of corn or potatoes, which are farmed unsustainably using powerful chemicals. The West German, Australian, and Scottish governments weighed the scientific evidence to deduce that a simple elimination of plastic bags in favor of paper ones would be an ecological step backward. This conclusion was duplicated last year in Seattle.

These findings do not much impress Jack Macy and Robert Haley of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, two of the longtime movers and shakers behind the city’s quest to quit plastic. Haley notes that “you can always get an LCA to support your view,” and brushes it off as “bogus science” irreparably tainted by its connection to industry. The two then touted a 2000 study in Sweden that showed paper bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic ones. This LCA, performed by the firm CIT Ekologik, is something of a security blanket for municipalities hoping to justify a plastic bag ban; officials in Manhattan Beach and Massachusetts have cited it as well. It warrants mentioning, however, that this was not a study of small grocery bags but hulking, 55-pound animal feed sacks. What’s more, it too was commissioned by industry: a consortium of European paper bag companies.

In 2002, Ireland mandated a fee of 21 euro cents on plastic shopping bags; within a year, its residents were using 90 percent fewer of them. This was the kind of measure the Department of the Environment and Mirkarimi originally pushed for San Francisco. It wasn’t what they got. During a one-year voluntary bag-reduction program adopted by the city’s largest grocery stores, the supermarkets’ lobbying arm, the California Grocers Association (CGA), turned around and engineered a 2006 state law forbidding municipalities from forcing stores to charge a fee on bags. This galvanized the Board of Supervisors behind Mirkarimi — “I told the mayor, ‘No more talking. We’re going for the ban,'” he recalls. Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, told the media that San Francisco had no option other than the one it took. But that isn’t true.

Thoughtful and innovative methods of skirting the 2006 state law are being developed in the Bay Area — but not in San Francisco. While the state forbids municipalities from imposing a bag fee on stores, leaders in Santa Clara County will vote this year on whether to place a fee directly on consumers, to be collected by stores. If that idea fails to gain support — or doesn’t survive the inevitable lawsuit from the plastics industry — the county could simply ban plastic bags and then charge a fee of around 25 cents on paper ones. These methods don’t have the San Francisco ban’s righteous simplicity, and — in a possible anathema to city liberals — they target mom-and-pop shops as well as chains. But the South Bay plans would actually reduce consumption and help the environment.

While Mirkarimi likes to tout bag fees, he doesn’t seem thrilled with the idea of San Franciscans paying them. The fee he proposed in 2005 would have been footed by stores, not by shoppers — a model that has never created significant reductions. He gushed about programs at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in which shoppers who bring their own bags receive tiny rewards. While this approach makes people feel good about themselves, it doesn’t produce real results. Yet when IKEA began charging for bags, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. Finally, shoppers who go the extra mile to bring reusable bags are missing the big picture — an Australian study noted that driving two kilometers (1.25 miles) roundtrip to the store burns the fuel energy it would take to create 17.5 plastic bags.

“Paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags, and therefore you would not create a policy that banned plastic and forced everyone to use paper only,” said Dick Lilly, the manager of the waste prevention program for Seattle Public Utilities. After much analysis, that city spurned the San Francisco model in favor of a fee on all bags, meant to spur shoppers to bring their own — a goal San Francisco officials embrace, but do virtually nothing to promote. Key elements of the S.F. model, in Lilly’s estimation, “could be a catastrophic mistake.”

Now it would be easy to come away from this article cursing overzealous activists or politicians that pander to said bleeding hearted constituencies. But I think that there is a deeper lesson in all this.

With commodities, the rationale for free market capitalism is that the price that is paid for a good will reflect what goes into it. So you pay for concrete, or pipes or computer chips, roughly the total value of all the materials and labor hours put into making it. One of the problems with this system arises in what are called hidden costs, that is things like pollution that the manufacturer doesn’t have to put on his or her balance sheet but still end up using some of societies resources.; eventually someone has to clean up the pollution and that usually ends up being taxpayers.

But in the case of plastic bags, we have the unique situation where the commodity that does use less resources actually costs less; that’s why most stores use them. Tacking on an additional 5 cents for each plastic bag used only furthers this philosophy. Users are paying the cost of the resources they’re using; a cost they are going to have to pay one way or another, whether in the form of tax dollars for pollution cleanup programs, or at the checkout counter. The difference is, at the counter, that cost is associated with the good whereas in taxes the relationship to consumption habits is much less direct.

I once heard that you should pay for the things you love. Otherwise they go away.

I believe that