Los Angeles joined the ranks of 48 other California cities and the state of Hawaii to ban plastic grocery bags. The measure, proponents argue, is to reduce the pollution caused by plastic bags that persist in the environment. They represent a threat to marine and freshwater wildlife. They add to the municipal solid waster stream. They also have the potential to release toxins into the environment. However, is an all-out ban the best choice?
Plastic’s Contribution to the Waste Stream
Plastics make up only 12.4 percent of the total municipal solid waste. It also has a low recycling rate of about 8 percent, far lower than other sources such as paper with its 63 percent recycling rate. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastic bag generation rate was nearly 4.2 million tons in 2007. Of that figure, just over 9 percent was recovered for recycling.
While that figures sound enormous, the fact remains that the generation of other materials far exceeds plastic bags, with the amount ending in landfills also much greater. So the question becomes, does banning plastic bags make a significant difference?
Other forms of plastic contribute far greater to landfill waste than plastic bags. For example, plastic packaging waste is nearly three times that of plastic bags. Durable goods made from plastic contribute twice as much to landfills. Even with its high recycling rate, paper and cardboard generate over 12 times as much waste.
Another important consideration is one that may not have been considered when these plastic bag bans were enacted. It has significant economic implications that can lead to unintended consequences. Plastic is a major commodity. Plastic bag bans can potentially impact more than 30,000 workers employed by plastic bag manufacturers.
Perhaps a wiser course of action is to raise the current recycling rates with increased awareness and other incentives. The contribution of plastic bags is minimal when compared to other sources. Bans may mask the real problems that lurk below the surface.
A better option is to encourage recycling of plastic bags and help fuel an industry that can benefit the environment. To encourage paper bag use with a nominal fee as Los Angeles will only result in use of a product with greater fossil fuel use and contribution to municipal solid waste.