Is the Battle Against Plastic Bags Gaining Any Ground?

Is the Battle Against Plastic Bags Gaining Any Ground?

It's a given that getting consumers to change habits is an uphill battle, and there is perhaps no better example than the global effort to ban single-use plastic shopping bags.

Despite a number of communities and countries passing bans, recent headlines are making us wonder whether the battle against the bags is getting tougher to fight because of circumstance or by design.

Articles in Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle call out the American Chemistry Council for opposing plastic bag bans. And the article in The Chronicle this week, by the independent investigative reporting group California Watch, even says the council went so far as to get positive language about plastic bags inserted in textbooks and teachers guides by lobbying state schools.

In the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail reported last month that "supermarkets have failed to deliver on a promise to reduce the number of throwaway bags given out each day." Large retailers issued 6.4 billion plastic bags in 2010, 333 million more than the previous year, according to the newspaper, which launched a "Banish the Bags" campaign in 2008. In contrast, about 100 billion plastic bags are used annually in the U.S.

The reports prompted us to check in with advocates of bag bans in California, whose cities and counties have been front-runners in U.S. efforts. San Francisco in 2007 became the first city in the country to limit use of traditional, non-recyclable shopping bags. We also talked to a trade group for grocers in the state to get the retailers' take on bag bans.

The degree of success enjoyed by the anti-bag movement is a matter of opinion, but the policy, environmental and grocery group reps who talked to us yesterday all said the drive to use plastic shopping bags more responsibly is gaining headway.

"This is certainly something that the public is embracing, and businesses are getting more and more supportive of this" said David Assmann, deputy director of SF Environment, a city department. San Francisco's ordinance bars major supermarkets and drug store chains from giving customers single-use plastic bags. The measure requires the retailers to use BPI-certified compostable plastic bags or paper bags with a minimum of 40-percent post consumer content and offer reusable bags.

While Assmann acknowledged there's still a long way to go before claiming victory, he said the fight against plastic bag use seems to be getting easier. "When it first came up, it was seen as a fringe issue," he said. "It is now seen as a legitimate environmental issue that it is moving into the mainstream."

Statewide numbers from Californians Against Waste show that use of traditional plastic bags is declining. About 12 billion single-use plastic bags are now distributed annually in the state compared to 2007, when more than 18 billion were used, said Sue Vang, a policy associate for the organization. Across the state, more than a dozen cities and counties have adopted bag ordinances.

At the California Grocers Association, Communications Vice President Dave Heylen said the push against standard plastic bags is gaining traction, but he questioned whether the measures have been effective as they could be in cutting waste. Consumers may be using fewer plastic bags but often are turning to paper instead, he said. And while paper grocery bags are recyclable -- they are still candidates for the waste stream that need to be diverted.

Paper bags also are expensive. They cost stores 6 to 12 cents a bag, depending on size and whether they have handles, compared to plastic bags, which cost 1 to 3 cents each, Heylen said. There's also the issue of transporting the bags to retailers, which then have to store them, he said. Paper bags are heavier to ship and take up more space.

The grocers' group, which represents the operators of more than 6,000 chain and independent retail stores and 200 grocery supply companies, supports statewide legislation that would "even the playing field" among retailers, Heylen said.

In a rare alliance, the association, environmentalists and several local governments supported a bill to ban use of non-recyclable plastic bags by all retailers and require them to charge at least 25 cents a bag for paper. The hope was to shift consumers and retailers toward reusable bags. Fees are the only way to cut plastic bag use, according to U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer. M&S has charged a fee of 5 pence (about 8 cents) a bag since 2008 and brought plastic bag use down from 500 million a year to about 90 million annually.

But the California legislation, AB 1998 by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, was defeated in the state Senate last year. The grocers' association now pushes for local measures that mirror the aims of Brownley's bill, Heylen said.

The American Chemistry Council and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association were among the groups that cheered the bill's defeat. The council, through its Progressive Bag Affiliates, says it promotes "the responsible use, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastic bags."

Earlier this year, a report commissioned by the council found that almost 428,000 tons of post-consumer plastic bags and plastic packaging known as film were recycled in 2009. That was 3 percent more than the amount recycled in 2008 and 31 percent more than in 2005, the report said.

Photo CC-licensed by EgeTron.

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