- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

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.

He felt it was a great idea for people to use reusable bags and thought the idea would catch on in cities throughout the world. By the looks of the success of his business, he was right.

His company produces fashionable reusable cloth grocery bags. Mr. Cobb said he began the business in 2003 with $50,000 on hand. He said 2008 sales are on track to net about $10 million.

“If you know you’re going to need a bag, people should grab something that they can use again and again,” he said. “People just mindlessly consume plastic bags; they don’t even think about whether or not they really need them.”

But people should at least have a choice, said Bill Ebeck, national sales manager of Sugar Land, Texas-based Advance Polybag Inc. His company provides plastic bags to retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Safeway Inc. and Target.

Not everybody can afford some of the reusable bags out on the market, he said. Mr. Ebeck advocates the use of reusing bags as well, but he says why not use bags that aren’t priced so highly.

His company produces a bag for Target, which is twice as thick as most other plastic bags. This could easily suffice for people who want to keep down their plastic bag consumption.

“People associate the litter they see to plastic bags, and they’re tired of seeing it,” Mr. Ebeck said. “I understand that, but that has nothing to do with the bag or how they’re made.”

If someone flings away their bag, that is the fault of the individual, not the bag, he said. The plastic bag industry works hard to keep its products environmentally safe, he said.

He points to the American Chemistry Council’s research, which said more than 812 million pounds of bags and film were recycled nationwide in 2006, up 24 percent from 2005. The recycled product is used in building and construction products, like fences and decks, and the reproduction of new bags as well.

But people do not always dispose of the bags properly.

The Ocean Conservancy, based in Washington, has annual cleanups along the world’s coastlines. In 2007, it reported that it found 325,921 bags washed up along the U.S. coastline. The conservancy did not distinguish among the types of material in 2007, but the numbers are so large that plastic bags will be counted on their own this year.

Mike Chrisman, California’s Secretary of Resources, said he is recommending a statewide ban on plastic bags. He is head of the California Ocean Protection Council, an environmental government panel. It holds no direct legislative power, but could hold sway if the proposal comes to a vote.

For Mr. D’Adamo of the Baltimore City Council, a statewide ban may not be the only solution.

“Maybe we should take a look at finally enforcing our litter laws,” he said. “Just look at what people get away with almost every day.”

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