Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
A pre-Christmas blog post titled “In defense of the plastic bag” by Marc Gunther of Green Biz.Com should be required reading for anyone taking sides in the current plastic bag bans and taxes – whether for or against. Gunther is one of the few surviving specimens of a once-numerous breed called realists, and a reality-based perspective is exactly what this contentious issue needs.
Beginning January 1st, the county where Gunther lives began a five-cent charge for carryout bags at retail stores. He’s not persuaded that plastic bag bans or taxes make sense, and he has his reasons, such as:
They’re not based on science. Studies show plastic bags have less environmental impact than paper, and if reused, are preferable to reusable plastic or cloth.
Some arguments favoring bans don’t hold up. You’ve heard about plastic waste in the ocean, but it’s really not as big as Texas nor is it made of plastic bags.
It’s not a long-term solution for plastic waste. The best solution is recycling, which we’re doing but not nearly as well as we could be.
“You may disagree,” writes Gunther, “but after digging into this subject for a while, I’m certain about only one thing: It’s complicated.” As it happens, that complexity also is a major obstruction to resolving the issue: Environmentalists favor a black and white solution — ban all bags — that avoids dealing with details like the plastic bag’s relatively small carbon footprint.
To make clear the complexity, Gunther gathered information from the head of “Rise Above Plastics” at the Surfrider Foundation, from Mark Daniels, VP of sustainability at plastic bag maker Hilex Poly, from Oprah Winfrey, and from an oceanographer that actually studied Pacific plastic debris at the site.
The oceanographer said the common expression about the Pacific Garbage Patch, that it is twice the size of Texas, is flat wrong, and is the kind of exaggeration that undermines the credibility of scientists who gather real data. Many websites campaigning for bag bans state that recycled material is more costly than virgin material. Yet Daniels told Gunther that even though virgin material for plastic bags is made from currently cheap natural gas, it costs less for Hilex Poly to collect, buy, transport, and reprocess reclaimed material than to buy virgin material.
Near the end of his blog Gunther says we still don’t have a clear answer to the question “paper or plastic” — even when “or reusable” is added as an option. However, at the end he describes his personal solution, which you can find by clicking here. It is worth reading, and here’s a hint about it from Gunther himself: “The plastic isn’t the problem; litter is the problem.” Did I mention he’s realistic?