In an effort to rid its streets of “urban tumbleweed,” governments around the globe are taking steps to tie up the plastic bag business for good.
Plastic bags - once seen as the environmentally friendly alternative to tree-consuming paper bags - are under siege, being taxed and outlawed by governments hoping to decrease pollution and boost consumer’s environmental awareness.
The plastic bag industry is pushing back, working to dispel the long-standing stigma attached to its product and inform the public about the benefits of using plastic bags.
“There is a lot of misinformation floating around regarding plastic bags,” said Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council. “When we begin to tell people about the upside of the bags, they’re generally very surprised.”
With the country striving to use more organic and natural material each day, the group knows it’s facing headwinds. Seattle recently discouraged the use of both paper and plastic shopping bags, requiring stores to charge 20 cents per bag.
Los Angeles and San Francisco have imposed fees on shoppers who request plastic bags. New York and New Jersey require stores to recycle plastic bags, and officials in San Diego and San Antonio are considering proposals that could result in fees or an outright ban.
In China, businesses are prohibited from giving customers plastic bags free of charge. Likewise, Australia, Germany and Ireland charge customers a fee on every plastic bag they use.
“It’s been a challenge to work through the bans,” said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group. “People just go around thinking the bags are bad. We try to show them the bags are actually better for the environment.”
According to the council, composted paper bags create 50 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags. He also points to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which said plastic bags generate 80 percent less waste than paper bags.
Mr. Christman said that most grocery stores oppose the legislation because paper bags cost more money and require more energy to manufacture.
The higher cost for stores is one of the reasons that the Baltimore City Council shot down a proposed ban on plastic bags in grocery stores last month by a 11-3 vote, said District 2 Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr., who opposed the proposed ban.
“To go after the supermarkets is unfair,” he said, indicating that only four of his constituents called his office in favor of the proposal. “Times are tough. Businesses in the city haven’t had it easy. So passing new costs on to them didn’t really make any sense here.”
The goal is to wean people off of receiving a plastic bag for small items like sandwiches or greeting cards, Mr. D’Adamo said. Most of these bags, he said, inevitably will end up being discarded and get caught in trees or storm drains. He wants a measure that will address consumers’ reliance on plastic bags without asking store owners to shoulder the burden.
Ireland had this in mind when it passed the “Plas Tax” in 2002. The charge on plastic bags has resulted in about 90 percent of consumers now using their own shopping bags.
The initiative’s results were eye-opening to Vincent Cobb - so much so he that started a business, Chicago-based Reusablebags.com.