San Francisco has banned plastic grocery bags at large supermarkets and drug stores, and Los Angeles and Santa Monica are considering a similar ban. But if you look at the facts, you would conclude that a ban would not improve matters, it will make them worse.
Fortunately, our elected officials in Los Angeles are generally guided by the facts and not the emotions or sound bites that lead to bad legislation, inconvenience and damaging results for society as a whole.
The rationale for the ban in San Francisco: It will significantly cut down imports of foreign oil; used plastic bags will stop overwhelming landfills; plastic bags are not as biodegradable as paper or compostable bags; it will help curb global warming because plastic bag production requires electricity; it will help eliminate a danger to marine animals; and stores can replace the plastic bags with recycled paper bags or bags made from newer, compostable materials.
The problem is none of these points has much, if any, validity. Consider:
- Plastic bags are made primarily from our own natural gas; very small amounts of oil are used.
- A 2003 study by the California Industrial Waste Management Board showed plastic bags represented just 0.4 percent of landfill content. This compares with 21 percent for unrecycled paper (50 times greater).
- Paper bags in landfills don't biodegrade much faster than plastic bags. Long-time landfills hold newspapers from the 1930s still easily readable today.
- Paper bags take four times the energy to produce, compared to plastic, and almost 100 times the energy to recycle.
- The greatest cause of marine mammal die-offs today is naturally occurring toxic algae blooms. This is an unhappy development, but plastics have nothing to do with it.
- Paper bags cost five times as much as plastic bags. The extra cost must be passed on to consumers just what they need with rising food and gasoline prices. The San Francisco politicos were blithely oblivious to this "pricing pollution." Homemakers aren't.
- There is not enough paper bag-making capacity to meet the market need without years of expansion, much-greater deforestation and ever-greater carbon dioxide emissions.
- Paper products are not "green products." Their manufacture results in clear-cutting of forests, strains limited water resources, requires harsh, toxic chemicals and destroys wildlife habitat.
- Compostable bags are not as biodegradable as advertised, unless taken to an organic composting facility. There are only 134 such facilities in the United States, compared with more than 3,000 yard-waste facilities. Permits for organic facilities are hard to get. The collected material is considered toxic/hazardous. Major odor and varmint problems surround these operations. You can bet eco-lobbyists don't live next door to one.
- It takes nine truckloads of paper bags to deliver the same amount of bags as one truckload of plastic bags. Just what we need on Los Angeles freeways.
This is a serious business policy matter. I have a vested interest in the plastic bag industry, but the industry, its investors and their employees, deserve as much consideration if not more as environmental lobbyists. The plastic bag companies provide employment, pay a variety of taxes, and conduct manufacturing operations in an age when the United States has already lost a significant portion of this key economic capability. This should count for a lot.
A few facts to consider: The U.S. plastics industry employs 1.3 million workers, the fourth largest manufacturing sector. The plastic bag industry employs 42,600 workers. Two thousand plastic bags weigh 30 pounds, but 2,000 paper bags weigh 180 to 280 pounds. It takes one tree to make about 1,000 paper bags; about 180,000 trees would need to be cut down to supply San Francisco with the amount of paper bags it will use each year. Compostable plastic bags cost more than paper bags. Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, meaning they can be used in other products. But if the plastic is mixed with compostable plastics, the bags are useless as recyclable material.
The outcome of this issue will reveal whether or not truth matters.
Finally, we are entering a period of drought, a recurring issue for California. The paper industry is the single largest water consumer of any sector in the national economy. It takes one gallon of water to produce one paper bag; a plastic bag uses 4 percent of that gallon.
Harold L. Katz is a partner in a CPA firm in Los Angeles. He also has an ownership interest in a new company that is to sell plastic coupon strips attached to plastic bags.
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