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Breaking The Plastic Bag Habit

Plastic bag makers and environmental activists fight over the future of the shopping bag—and perhaps the plastics industry itself

by Alexander H. Tullo
September 15, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 37

Credit: Shutterstock
A photo of a white plastic bag.
Credit: Shutterstock

It was 2005 in Chico, Calif., and Andy Keller was unemployed. One idle day found him clearing his yard of debris and heading to the local landfill to dispose of it. He was dismayed by what he saw. Plastic shopping bags were everywhere, stuffed with garbage, getting picked at by birds. More than a few empty bags had gone airborne, getting caught on fencing and blowing into the adjacent ranchland.

“I had never thought about plastic bags, how many I used, how long I used them for, what they were made of, or what happened to them when I was done,” Keller recalls.

After taking in the sight, Keller was struck by an entrepreneurial idea. He got to work designing a reusable bag. He aimed for something less bulky than the hippy-dippy canvas affairs he would see around town and more like the convenient plastic bags given away for free at the supermarket.

The company Keller founded, ChicoBag, now sells bags that can be folded into pouches and clipped onto key rings. Getting rid of plastic bags requires consumers to change habits. “We want to make it supereasy for them,” he says.

Keller isn’t above forcing shoppers to change either. He is one of California’s leading agitators for plastic bag regulations. He created the “bag monster,” a costumed character that dons 500 plastic bags—the number that, by Keller’s estimate, is used each year by the average consumer. The bag monster, he says, attempts to “show people what I saw in the landfill that day.” The character appears at city council meetings and antibag demonstrations throughout the state.

Keller and his allies appear to be on the march. Nearly 100 local bag restrictions have passed throughout California. And just last month, legislators in the state capital of Sacramento became the first in the U.S. to approve a statewide plastic bag ban.

Regulations have caught on outside of California as well. Chicago aldermen approved a ban on plastic bags in the spring. The New York City Council is considering a fee on both paper and plastic bags. Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D) has even, on a couple of occasions, introduced a bag bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Credit: Ty Finocchiaro/ C&EN
SOURCES: Californians Against Waste, Earth Policy Institute, Hilex Poly

To environmental activists, plastic bags are among the most visible symbols of a throwaway culture. They say the bags are a frivolous use of hydrocarbons. They foul equipment in recycling facilities and aren’t themselves recycled in appreciable amounts.

But the most consistent complaint about the bags is litter. Activists call them “urban tumbleweeds.” And beyond being an eyesore, the bags have a propensity to settle in waterways and get carried out to sea. There, opponents say, they cause real ecological harm.

The plastic bag industry, not surprisingly, seeks to preserve its hard-won business and sees the attack on bags as part of a broader assault on all plastics. Industry representatives and other bag defenders deny that litter is a big enough problem to warrant regulation that would kill their industry and inconvenience the consumer. They further argue that the bags are more sanitary and more environmentally benign than the alternatives.

Plastic Oceans

The plastic bag so familiar today is the T-shirt bag, so called because of its resemblance to an undershirt. It is usually made out of high-density polyethylene, a pound of which makes between 60 and 70 bags.

The T-shirt bag was invented in Sweden in the 1960s and popularized in the U.S. in the early 1980s when the supermarket chains Safeway and Kroger adopted them. Since then, Americans’ use of them has grown to about 100 billion annually, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

It is the bags’ sweeping success in the marketplace that sowed the seeds of insurrection. Environmental activists are keen to quote the 100 billion figure to describe what they see as the magnitude of the problem. Keller contends that the bag industry’s drive for efficiency has created a “design flaw” that is the culprit in the litter problem.

“Plastic bags, because they have been lightweighted to the point where they are very lightweight, have an inherent ability to become airborne litter despite proper disposal,” he says.

All too often, the bags stop tumbling when they reach a body of water, which makes bag regulations of particular interest to coastal communities—in 1990, Nantucket, Mass., was the first place to ban bags—and to environmental groups that focus on coastal issues.

One such group is the Surfrider Foundation, an organization started 30 years ago by surfers in Malibu bemoaning the poor management of local beaches.

“I surf probably 100-days-plus a year,” says Chad Nelson, the group’s environmental director. “And there isn’t a single time that I surf that I don’t pick up a piece of plastic in the water. It is just everywhere.”

Litter characterization studies consistently put bags near the top of the ocean debris list, Nelson says. For example, the Ocean Conservancy conducted a global study in 2014 in which volunteers collected more than 12 million lb of marine debris. They determined that plastic grocery bags were the sixth most common form of litter, behind cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, bottle caps, and straws.

Litter is a key battleground in the fight between environmental activists and the plastic bag industry. Phil Rozenski is director of marketing and sustainability at Hilex Poly, the largest U.S. producer of plastic and paper shopping bags. Hilex Poly is also a member of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobbying group set up by the chemical industry trade group American Chemistry Council and now part of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. Rozenski says the opposition is exaggerating.

For instance, he takes issue with how people characterize the gyres, current-less regions in the oceans that act as traps for plastic flotsam. “For about 10 years, it was portrayed that there was an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas,” he says. “I actually took a radio interview on NPR, and the host claimed it was 2 inches thick and you could walk on it.”

Rozenski points to research by Angelicque E. White, an oceanographer at Oregon State University, that he thinks clarifies the matter. She says the so-called garbage patch is closer to 1% the size of Texas and more of a “dilute soup” than an island of trash. Most of the debris isn’t even visible from the deck of a ship. But White also emphasizes that she means to correct hyperbole, not dismiss the problem. “The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial,” she says.

Surfrider’s Nelson blames journalists for discrediting environmental activists by blowing the gyres out of proportion. “The media portrayed it as an island of trash,” he says. “The opposition jumped on that.”

Still, the image of a plastic wasteland out at sea endures. “Do you know about the great Pacific garbage patch? Twice the size of the U.S.? My son does,” California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez tweeted last month when the bag ban was wending its way through the legislature.

A claim making the rounds on the Internet for years that plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals every year is also misleading, Rozenski asserts. The figure, he noted, originated in an Australian government misreading of a Canadian research paper referring to fishing nets, not plastic bags.

“There has been a ton of debate about exactly how many marine animals,” Nelson responds. “I don’t think there has been a great count that pins down the global number. We’ll figure out the scale of the problem, but it is clearly an issue.”

A graphic comparing the resource intensity of different types of shopping bags.
Credit: Shutterstock (all)/C&EN
After eight uses, not including washing, a reusable plastic bag has a lower environmental impact than a single disposable plastic bag. Numbers given are per 1,000 bags.a
a Except for single-use polyethylene, which is per 1,500 bags to account for their smaller carrying capacity.
SOURCES: California State University, Chico, Research Foundation; Joseph Greene

Plastics’ Day In Court

Backers of bag bans complain that the plastics industry has been using the courts to intimidate the opposition. Jennie R. Romer is a lawyer who helped author San Francisco’s bag ordinance and also founded to help California jurisdictions find information for their legal fights against the industry. More recently she relocated to the East Coast to help spearhead regulations in New York.

Romer recalls that first-generation bag bills, such as the one that passed in San Francisco in 2007, generally banned plastic bags but allowed retailers to continue to give out paper bags. Claiming preferential treatment of paper, plastic bag makers challenged the bills in court. A complaint common in the suits was that the municipalities needed to conduct environmental impact assessments before going through with legislation, a requirement of California law at the time.

The suits presented an opening for plastic bag makers. Contrary to what the average person, accustomed to the “paper or plastic” choice at the supermarket, might think, life-cycle analyses often cast plastic bags in a complimentary light. For example, a 2010 report conducted by ICF International for Green Cities California found that paper bag use results in greater greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric acidification, water consumption, and ozone production than plastic bag use does.

These reports haven’t gone unchallenged. According to International Paper, assumptions made in an influential life-cycle analysis conducted by Boustead Consulting and sponsored by the Progressive Bag Alliance unfairly favor plastics.

The Boustead study assumes a 1.5:1 ratio of plastic versus paper bag use because of the difference between the carrying capacity of the two bags. International Paper contends that 3:1 is a more appropriate ratio. The company also argues that a paper bag recycling rate of 60% is more accurate than the 21% figure Boustead used.

Whatever the number for paper, plastic bags are not being recycled as much. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, polyethylene bags, sacks, and wraps were recycled at a rate of 14.8% in 2012. By comparison, the rate for polyethylene terephthalate bottles and jars is 30.8%.

Generally, when the bags are recycled, they are mixed with other polyethylene films before they are transformed into products such as plastic lumber or new bags.

Hilex Poly’s Rozenski says the recycling rate for plastic bags is low because so many consumers reuse them in their own homes as, for example, trashcan liners. A survey by APCO Insight found that 92% of shoppers say they reuse their bags.

As the statistic trading and legal sparring raged, new ordinances in California moved away from strict bans on bags. Cities around the state now usually put a charge—generally 10 cents—on paper bags when they move to ban plastic. The statewide ban also works this way.

Charging for bags has become the predominant model in the rest of the country as well. Washington, D.C., and Maryland’s Montgomery County both levy a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic. New York City is considering a 10-cent across-the-board charge.

Romer is a fan of this approach. She acknowledges that people need to shop on rainy days or like to use the bags for trash or to pick up after their dogs. “It gives consumers more options,” she says. “The main thing is that having a charge makes people stop and think about whether they really need the item or not.”

Beyond Bags

The plastic debate itself has shifted away from paper versus plastic and to plastics versus reusable bags such as ones made from nonwoven polypropylene or extra-thick polyethylene.

And plastic bag manufacturers are now casting aspersions on reusable bags. For instance, theyare quick to cite a report about a norovirus outbreak in Washington state that struck nine members of a girls’ soccer team from Oregon. The illness was traced to a reusable bag that had been stored in a bathroom used by a person who was already sick.

However, the author of the report, the late William Keene of the Oregon Public Health Division, noted that media reports “got a bit off topic” about the episode. “It could just have as easily been a disposable plastic bag, a paper bag, a cardboard box, the flush handle on the toilet, the sink, the floor, or the nearby countertops,” he wrote in an e-mail to officials at the city of Los Angeles.

Another often-quoted report is from researchers who surveyed bags used by shoppers in California and Arizona. The team, which was supported by the American Chemistry Council, found Escherichia coli on 8% of the bags. But Charles P. Gerba, a University of Arizona, Tucson, epidemiologist who participated in the study, ranks the bacteria levels somewhere between kitchen sponges and doorknobs in public restrooms.


“The cleanest thing in a restroom is the doorknob, although most people are terrified of it,” Gerba says. The bag-bound bacteria can be eliminated by washing, he adds, although only 3% of the consumers surveyed actually wash their bags.

The plastics industry fights hard against bag ordinances in part because it perceives the stakes to be high. Rozenski accuses environmental activists of having an antiplastic agenda that extends beyond the bag business. “Not only are they attacking the 30,000 jobs of our industry,” he says, “they are going to be attacking other industries that are next on their list as well.”

Antibag activists say they aren’t against all plastics, just the ones that are thrown away too quickly. “Plastic is an amazing material that can be molded into any shape,” ChicoBag’s Keller says. “It is durable. It lasts for a long time. However, it is kind of silly to make it into an item that is flimsy and disposable.”

Surfrider’s Nelson readily admits that his organization has it in for other materials such as polystyrene foam. “We talk about trying to get rid of single-use plastics,” he says. “We are not, for example, trying to take on car parts. Why are we making something that is meant to be used for 15 minutes constructed such that it will last a lifetime?”

If activists do move the debate beyond bags and start going after items such as foam, plastic cutlery, and beverage bottles, they will be targeting today’s culture of disposability—and the livelihood of the plastics industry—head on. Rozenski and his allies want to make sure the battle doesn’t get that far.  


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