Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

What's wrong with banning plastic bags

with 3 comments

Ever since Gavin Newsom, the mayor who lost the 2004 presidential election for Kerry with his well-intentioned but illegal legalization of gay marriage in San Francisco, instituted a ban on plastic bags in his city, the idea has been popping up from North Carolina to India.  A recent poll in Australia showed 80 percent approval for the nanny-state measure.

Now the California legislature is thinking of charging 25 cents a bag; a different approach with the same effect.

The reasons cited for eradicating the scourge of plastic bags, once and for all, from whatever regional entity are always the same: the bags make an unholy mess; they kill seabirds; they’re expensive to recycle; they’re made from petroleum; they get stuck in trees. All of which, undoubtedly, sucks.

Here’s why plastic bag bans and taxes are not as simple as they seem: It takes about 1/10th the amount of energy  to make a plastic bag as it does to make a paper bag. And even more energy is used to make and ship those self-righteous “I am not a plastic bag” bags and similar ones meant to be re-used.

So in getting rid of plastic bags we’re essentially exchanging litter for greenhouse gas emissions. Trading the strangling of birds in the short term for the extinction of species in the long term.

I’m not saying, go out and use plastic bags with abandon, and I’m not sure which side I come down on. I’m just saying, it’s more complicated than it appears. What we really need to do is to get everyone to dispose of their bags properly; while that ain’t gonna happen, if you are doing that then you’re not contributing to the problem as it’s being defined.

One more thing: What are dog-owners supposed to do in a city with no plastic shopping bags? (A strict environmentalist would say don’t have a dog: mammalian pets eat mostly meat that is scrap from producers of meat for human consumption and enables the GHG-creating industry to fatten its coffers.) With no bags from the grocery store to pick up poop, dog-owners need to either buy bags or carry a pooper-scooper, which is a sub-optimal solution as the things never pick up all the poop—contributing to the spread of disease and another form of pollution.  There are recycled plastic bags you can buy, and ones marketed as biodegradable.

What’s your solution to the great plastic bag dilemma?

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Written by ptullis

May 21, 2009 at 5:21 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Interesting questions.

    I think that the negatives of plastic bags are universally acknowledged–environmental damage aside, the flapping of bags in leafless trees in winter is a particularly unpleasant sight.

    My local grocery store has a bin to “recycle” one’s plastic bags, but I am a bit skeptical on the extent to which that is actually what happens to them when I stuff last week’s bags in there. Like so much in modern green-washed consumer culture, though, it makes me feel good and, well, out of sight, out of mind.

    For the purposes of something like grocery shopping, the energy and materials inputs into reusable bags are amortized over many, many uses so it would be interesting to calculate and compare. That said, it’s not realistic to think that everyone will carry bags around with them for every errand they run.

    I’d like to see an article about disposable versus cloth diapers. I’ve heard conflicting arm-chair analysis of petroleum/landfill issues versus caustic chemicals used to clean the reusable ones.

    Oh, and I think you give Gavin Newsom too much credit for 2004.


    May 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  2. Here’s my theory on Newsom: The marriage ceremonies he presided over in the City Hall rotunda were all over cable news in early 2004; it was after that when the initiatives banning gay marriage went on state ballots; these initiatives galvanized rightists who might otherwise have stayed home to come out and vote for the bans and for Bush; only one state with such an initiative (say, Missouri, which was close in the presidential election) needed to go to Kerry to tilt the electoral college to him.

    Paul Tullis

    May 21, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  3. I can’t say I have a solution to scourge the earth of evil plastic…but when I get groceries, I just bring my backpack. Which means, yes, I’m that weird little girl lugging around a huge freaking backpack everywhere I go. But you never know when it’ll come in handy.

    Katie Drummond

    May 22, 2009 at 7:06 am

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