Does Banning Plastic Bags Really Work?

no plastic bags logoSeattle’s ban on plastic bags went into effect in July of 2012. In a nutshell (and with some exceptions which we’ll get to a bit later) the law, “Prohibits all Seattle retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout (shopping) bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar.” With the law in effect, Seattle joined a growing list of locations around the world with plastic bag bans in effect. But how is the new law working out?

This policy would appear to make complete sense from an environmental standpoint.  It is estimated that it takes 500 to 1000 years for a plastic bag to break down, but the truth is we don’t really know how long it takes because plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years. Plastic bags do not biodegrade–they photodegrade from sunlight, becoming brittle before breaking down into tiny particles. Plastic bags sealed in a landfill probably won’t be exposed to very much sunlight, so any estimates about how long it takes them to break down could have significantly large margins of error. By contrast, paper bags break down in about a month. And while there are newer methods of producing plastic bags like: vegetable-based bioplastics, lactic acid-based polylactics, and biodegradable polyethylene film, most modern plastic bags are still made from standard polyethelene.

Vacuum #1 by Melissa Cooke

Vacuum #1 art by Melissa Cooke.

Deceased whales have been discovered on beaches with trash and plastic bags in their digestive systems. When we have a mass of garbage bigger than the state of Texas floating in the ocean (known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or the “Pacific Trash Vortex”) which is largely composed of plastic debris, it becomes clear that the time is long overdue for action on this environmental issue. Believe me, I “get” why the ban on plastic bags makes sense. The problem is that some of the laws banning plastic bags just aren’t written very well. They include massive loopholes which make them little more than toothless shams.

Imagine my surprise while grocery shopping recently in downtown Seattle when I was offered a plastic bag at the checkout. “How does that work?” I asked the friendly tattooed clerk, “I thought plastic bags were banned here?”  He responded that there was a loophole; that these particular plastic bags (which the store charges 20 cents each for) are classified as “reusable.” According to the printing on this bag, it is “made from 100% recycled content.” It was much thicker than the banned single-use plastic bags. Wadded up into a ball, I would estimate this reusable bag to take up about five times as much space by volume. I’m not even sure if this bag would last 20 uses (the factor which deems a bag “reusable” under the law). The thick plastic makes it crinkle loudly. I can’t really imagine anyone willingly carrying one of these bags around throughout their day. So this is what we traded our free, “single-use” plastic bags for—something bigger, more expensive, and which I imagine will take even longer to break down? I suddenly felt like we had all been bamboozled by our plastic bag ban law.

Thank You plastic bagAnd this grocery store isn’t the only Seattle business which has found a way to exploit the law. Seattle’s law allows “retail stores, at their discretion, to charge for smaller [paper] bags or provide them free.” Of course, many stores do not provide them for free. That’s fine, a five or twenty cent charge per bag (depending on the size) is negligible; until one considers that it’s flatly applied to people of all income levels. Then it becomes more like a regressive tax—but we won’t get into that aspect here. The law, “Requires retail stores to show all bag-charges on customer receipts; stores keep all revenue. The charge is a taxable retail sale.” Go to many of the local corner stores and you’ll quickly see that most of them are just outright pocketing the bag fee off the books.

All of this would be easier to overlook if the law was actually getting rid of plastic bags, but so many exceptions still exist. Exceptions from the Seattle.gov website include:

-Plastic bags used in stores for bulk items or to protect vegetables, meat, fish and poultry, frozen foods, flowers, deli foods and similar where moisture would be a problem are exempt.

-Dry-cleaner, newspaper, and door-hanger bags and plastic bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage bags or to contain pet waste, or approved compostable food and yard waste bags are exempt.

-Plastic bags for take-out orders from restaurants are allowed, though use of recyclable paper bags is encouraged.

The take-out provision for restaurants is a particularly big offender. While just about every locally-owned restaurant I have worked for here in Seattle addressed the issue of using more environmentally friendly “to go” containers a decade ago, big corporate-owned chains seem to not even remotely care. Visit one of these culinary behemoths which inhabit downtown Seattle and marvel at their wasteful “to go” containers.

Many of the upscale retail clothing stores in downtown Seattle never even bothered to make so much as a vague attempt to comply with the plastic bag ban. Observing some of the well-heeled shoppers sashaying around downtown with plastic bags full of their latest shopping conquests, one can’t help but get the feeling that the plastic bag ban was directly targeted at a certain class of people while blindly exempting others. A $250 fine for businesses which violate the ban is laughable to large multinational corporations.  The new law also included a provision which allowed, “Merchants with existing supplies of plastic carryout bags (purchased before Ordinance 123775 became law January 19, 2012) may use them until their supplies run out.” This provision simply allowed many businesses to stock up on plastic bags for years to come before the law went into effect. How can that aspect of the ban even be enforced?

Instead of reusing and recycling my plastic bags like I did before, I now have to purchase thick, environmentally harmful trash bags from massive chemical companies for certain uses. Yeah, like so many of us did before the ban, I still bring my reusable cloth grocery bags to the store with me on planned trips. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen when I’m out and about and, on a whim, decide to swing by a grocery store to pick up something. Have you ever carried frozen foods or anything which produces condensation in the cheapest possible paper bag a company can buy? How about trying to carry groceries home in any paper bag while it’s raining? Seattle is notorious for its rain. Many of us who live here bike, walk, and use public transit while trying not to lug around anything more than is necessary. We might not drive a Prius where we can keep our cloth grocery bags stashed for spur of the moment use. Even reusable cloth bags come with inherent health risks if not properly cared for.

While the ban on plastic bags can be a pain at times, contrary to what you might think, I still believe it to be a worthy idea. Some people have tried to link the ban to an increase in shoplifting, but there just isn’t enough data yet to make such an assumption. I just wish the law was written in a more comprehensive manner. Are there provisions which allow for more environmentally friendly plastic bags as technology advances? (It would appear not.) How can we close some of the glaring loopholes currently being exploited? How do we continue to justify the consumption and waste produced by bottled water? If the citizens of Seattle care so much our breathtaking local environment, why does our sewer system continue to overflow into the Puget Sound during periods of heavy rain? Why do I see local businesses empty their mop buckets into storm drains on a nightly basis?  Why are we considering allowing increased numbers of uncovered coal trains to rumble through our city? Like any public policy, our environmental laws are still works in progress. Let’s hope we can get them right in time to make a real change.

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1 Comment

Filed under Editorials and Rants

One response to “Does Banning Plastic Bags Really Work?

  1. Really informative. I live up in Vancouver, and although we don’t have laws against plastic bags, most stores are now charging us for them. My mom gives a valiant effort to use those cloth bags and its a habit I’ve failed to adopt but hope to.

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