Another way climate change and marine debris are similar problems: it’s hard to pass laws to mitigate the damage they cause because of the opponents who come forward to work against them. Laws aimed at reducing single-use plastic bags, whether by charging a small fee or banning their use by retailers, seem like an obvious solution to the scourge of the bags, which foul our parks, beaches, rivers, and oceans and enter the food chain when they photodegrade into pieces small enough for fish to ingest. Spurred by Ireland’s success in levying a hefty (33-cent) fee on the bags in 2002–use dropped 94% within weeks–scores of municipalities and perhaps 25% of the world’s countries, including Italy and China, have adopted restrictions or an outright ban. (See the Campaign for Recycling for a list of towns and cities by state that have banned or taxed plastic bags–39 cities and counties in California alone.)
The measures have not always sailed into being. When the Seattle City Council passed a 20-cent fee on plastic bags, the plastics industry spent $1.4 million to get residents to repeal the fee in 2009. The Council responded by passing a bill late in 2011 that outright bans plastic bags–not just in grocery stores but in most categories of stores, food trucks, and farmers’ markets. (Paper bags, which waste resources, will cost 5 cents.) In California a group of plastic manufacturers banded together to try to force California municipalities to spend money on an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) of the proposed ordinances, which would have added to costs and delay the legislation. Although the industry’s reps say that they are have the environment in mind in calling for increased recycling rather than banning or taxing the bags and claim that limiting their use hurts shoppers, retailers, and workers (by threatening manufacturing jobs), why are they spending so much money to defeat the bills? The answer to this question, as to so many “why’s” of the anti-environmental movement, is the profit to be made by the manufacturers of plastic bags. Don’t be fooled by an article at the GreenBiz blog by Marc Gunther titled “In Defense of the Plastic Bag” in December 2011; he simply repeats the industry’s arguments and cites a spokesperson for Hilex Poly, a manufacturer with a website called “Bag the Ban,” to back him up. GreenBiz published a detailed rebuttal within a week, by Stiv Wilson. It lays out the case against single-use plastic bags in such detail that it was picked up by the Huffington Post website.
Despite opposition, the movement to regulate plastic bags continues to pick up speed, with three states (Hawai’i, Oregon, California) currently vying to be the first to pass a state-wide law. The key to successful implementation is to change people’s mindset, as happened in Ireland. The New York Times reported, “Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.” In short, the Irish became more like Portlanders, whose obsessive recycling, re-using, and refusing of single-use plastic is satirized in this clip from Portlandia, a cable series . It’s worth noting that Portland was not an early adopter; the city didn’t even have a plastic-bag law until 2011, but it is a ban, not a charge, and it’s one of a few US cities to have one. The mindset had already changed, so the ban was not a big deal.
To have arguments at hand when you counter someone who thinks bag bans are not necessary, see the Ban the Bag PDX blog or Stiv Wilson’s piece in defense of the bans. He takes care of the industry’s argument that recycling is better in three sentences: “That plastics bags are 100% recyclable isn’t the issue. It’s that by a massive percentage they are not recycled [and the rate of recycling is going down, not up]. Even when they are, we end up with more plastic in the environment instead of less.”