Cleaner Environment Not Necessarily in the Bag for California
SACRAMENTO – Tomorrow the Assembly Appropriations Committee considers AB 2058, “Reducing Plastic Bags,” by Lloyd E. Levine, a Sherman Oaks Democrat, which imposes on consumers a recycling “fee” of $.25 per bag. The committee, and all Californians, should also consider some facts about plastic bags and their alternatives.
Assemblyman Levine believes the bags are a problem, particularly for marine life, and is also the author of AB 2449, which since last July 1 has required stores to take back and recycle plastic grocery bags. Last year San Francisco banned non-biodegradable plastic bags by larger retailers, including supermarkets and drug stores. As PRI environmental fellow Amy Kaleita pointed out at the time, the alternatives to plastic bags are not exactly free of problems.
Plastic bags do require petroleum products, which can make them an environmental problem, but production of each bag uses 120 kilojoules (kJ) of petroleum, compared to 500 kJ for a single paper bag, according to the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment. The raw materials for paper bags are renewable wood products but according to the Institute the total energy used by a single paper bag is 1,680 kJ, far more than the 735 kJ for a single plastic bag. As Dr. Kaleita noted, “a paper bag is, in effect, a double bag requiring more than twice the amount of energy.”
She also noted that the lifecycle of one plastic bag produces 0.55 kilograms (kg) of atmospheric pollutants and 0.1 g of waterborne pollutants, compared to 2.6 kg of atmospheric and 1.5 g of waterborne pollutants for a paper bag. In other words, the paper bag produces more than four times the atmospheric pollutants and 15 times the waterborne pollutants.
Opponents charge that plastic bags can take hundreds of years to degrade in the environment. However, as Dr. Kaleita noted, none of the bags will truly degrade because most modern landfills are designed to prevent breakdown and keep items within the landfill system because of potential dangers to nearby groundwater and soils. The most important issue is how much space the trash takes up and the easily compressible plastic bags require less space than bulkier paper bags.
One to three percent of the plastic bags consumed each year do end up as litter. As such they pose a danger in marine environments, where they can choke or strangle aquatic wildlife. As Dr. Kaleita cautions, however, even the biodegradable plastic bags won’t decompose in fresh or salt water for an estimated eight to fourteen months and still pose a danger to fish and other aquatic life.
This problem could be avoided if people would simply respect existing laws against littering, but the issue does not end there. Costs must also be taken into account. As Dr. Kaleita notes, biodegradable paper bags cost between eight and 10 cents per unit, compared to a penny per unit for the standard plastic bag. Biodegradable bags are made from soy and corn, a crop much in demand by the ethanol industry, especially with gasoline prices so high. Therefore the cost of producing biodegradable bags is likely to increase.
A fee of $.25 per bag does not sound like much but would punish low-income people more than others. A cleaner environment remains a valuable goal. The question is whether solutions that impose costs on the most vulnerable consumers, with questionable environment benefits, are the best way to proceed.