Seattle’s New Ban on Plastic Bags ‘Pushes People to Less Environmentally Friendly Options’

Elizabeth Harrington | December 21, 2011 | 2:31pm EST
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(AP photo)

( – A move by the Seattle City Council earlier this week to ban plastic bags and levy a five-cent tax on paper bags at retail outlets will push consumers to “more resource-intensive alternatives,” and will actually harm the very environment the ban seeks to protect, a leading plastics manufacturer and a major conservative group say.

“Moving consumers away from plastic bags only pushes people to less environmentally friendly options such as paper bags, which require more energy to produce and transport, and re-usable bags, which are not recyclable,” said Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability & environmental policy at Hilex Poly, which manufactures plastic bags.

The Seattle City Council unanimously voted 9-0 on Monday to ban single-use plastic bags to “protect marine wildlife,” and charge 5 cents per paper bag, with the money going to retailers.

Council members argue that 292 million plastic bags are used in Seattle annually, “too many” of which “end up in Puget Sound where they do not biodegrade.”

“Plastic bags break down into smaller and smaller pieces that remain hazardous as they are consumed by filter-feeders, shellfish, fish, turtles, marine mammals, and birds,” according to the city council Web site.

Low-income customers who qualify for food assistance programs will be provided paper bags at no charge, and the ban will not be applicable for take-out food “where there is a public health risk if a bag is not provided,” the Web site states.

But Angela Logomasini, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said the plastics manufacturer is actually more in touch with the facts on this issue than environmentalists are.

Paper bags take up much more space in landfills, whereas plastic bags generate 80 percent less waste and can be reused. Plastic bags are also made from natural gas, while reusable bags are made from oil. The weight of 2,000 plastic bags is 30 lbs. The same amount of paper bags weigh 280 lbs.

Logomasini said environmentalists “only look at one side of the equation.”

“They assume that because plastics don’t biodegrade that they’re the worst thing in the world, when in reality plastics are extremely energy efficient to make, so you have a lot of energy savings up front,” she said.

“There’s always the tradeoff” with environmental bans, said Logomasini, who argues plastic bags are “not simply used once” and are more sanitary that reusable bags that can trap bacteria.

“They’re even more energy efficient than cloth bags, which have to be used hundreds of times over to equal the same energy savings,” she said.

The litter issue is an important consideration, the conservative analyst noted.

“It is an important concern for litter -- plastic bags stay around longer -- but the answer to that isn’t to get rid of them,” said Logomasini, who pointed to the Keep America Beautiful campaign as a good model.

Daniels, meanwhile, said that comprehensive recycling – addressing all forms of plastic bags, sacks and wraps -- is the real answer to the problem. The Hartsville, S.C.-based Hilex Poly started a “Bag your bags, Bring em’ Back” campaign in King County, Wash., to encourage consumers to recycle their plastic bags at grocery stores.

“By voting to implement a ban on plastic bags, the City of Seattle misses the opportunity to lead the way toward the meaningful reduction of litter through increased statewide recycling efforts,” Daniels said.

Logomasini agreed that litter control – not elimination of plastic bags – is the real key.

“The point is you’re not going to get rid of them completely, you’re not going to get rid of all litter completely. It’s litter control,” she added. “I think environmentalists would do far more for the environment if they focused on actually finding solutions instead of trying to ban everything.”

The ordinance will go into effect July 1, 2012.

Seattle joins the list of San Francisco (the first to ban bags in 2007), Los Angeles County, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Edmonds, Mukilteo and Bellingham, Wash., and others that have moved to ban plastic bags. Washington, D.C., implemented a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in 2009.

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