Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ignorance on Both Sides of Plastic Bag Debate

Another town has a ban of plastic grocery bags in the works to help improve or save the environment, or whatever. This time its Annapolis, Maryland, reports the NY Times. First it was San Francisco. Now Boston, Baltimore, Oakland (CA), Portland (OR), Santa Monica and others are looking into it. This is a good thing. But of course, there are people on both sides of this issue, and I’m hearing some pretty lame arguments from all of them.

First, let’s look at the numbers. It takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic grocery bags. Here in the US, we go through about
100 billion bags per year. Yeah, that’s a one with eleven zeroes behind it. Do the math and you’ll see that it takes about 430 million gallons of oil to make all the plastic bags used by this country each year. (For the record, the US burns through about 840 million gallons of oil per day).

Where do they all the bags go? Landfills, I suppose. But supporters of a ban on plastic bags say a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean. One environmentalist told the NY Times that “much” of the plastic bags go on and kill animals in the ocean. Hmm… do the math there. If much of the bags, say 60 billion out of 100 billion are killing ocean animals, wouldn’t the US shores be littered with carcasses?

The same environmentalist (who happens to be Jacques Custeau’s granddaughter) claims it takes 1000 years for a bag to biodegrade. I’m not sure where she gets that from. But if you check out this interesting Slate Explainer entry,
Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?, you’ll learn that we really have no way of knowing how long it takes a plastic bag to break down.

Again, I think it’s a good thing to ban the bags, but this kind of hyperbole can really turn people off from the cause.

Anyway, another ban supporter claims that, “no oil is used to produce recycled paper checkout bags.” I doubt it. Transporting paper bags alone would take oil. And the manufacturing of the bags almost certainly uses some oil. Oil aside, I guarantee some kind of other fossil fuel to manufacture recycled bags.

What about those fighting the ban? Of course, they say ban supporters don’t consider the cost. It takes 2 cents to make a plastic bag, while paper bags cost a whole nickel. That may not sound like much. But on a national scale, that’s the difference between $2 billion and $5 billion (if you multiply the cost times the number of bags created each year). Sounds like a lot, yes, but what does it cost a society to deal with a 100 billion-bag heap of bags that grows by 275,000 each day, and doesn’t start to decompose for (at least) 500 years and maybe, just maybe, 1000?

If stores are so bothered by cost, try this: stop handing out bags all together. Maybe governments should consider an all out ban on any bags, paper or plastic in retail stores. This way, stores that do hand out bags won’t have a competitive advantage over those that do not. In the end, consumers (me included) would be forced to get reusable bags. And that’s the best solution.


Filed Under Life said...

interesting post. i'm amazed at the data you've written about.
i totally agree that it would be better for us (mostly for environmental reasons) to rid of these bags... but what about the people that are making these bags? ppl whose jobs depend on making & transporting these bags? wouldn't they be out of jobs?

or is that too much of insignificant number to count?

pound360 said...

Dear "filed under life"...

Smart question.

As it turns out, I've given this a lot of thought over the years; not only for this particular case, but for other, similar situations (for example, the auto and IT industries).

What I’ve learned: there aren’t a lot of easy answers.

One easy one: factories that make plastic bags and paper bags switch to making other products. Instead of making plastic bags, for example, maybe the factory starts making plastic forks. (Yeah, yeah, I know plastic forks aren’t good for landfills either, but one fight at a time here!)

A more difficult (but preferable for the environment) outcome is that people who make bags of all kinds find work in other industries either by leveraging their manufacturing skills or by going back to school to learn new skills. It’s certainly not easy, it’s terrifying to get laid off and have to start over -- it’s happened to me twice. And I’ve been very cynical about it. But after giving it some thought, I don’t believe preserving jobs is a good reason to continue manufacturing unsustainable products or maintaining unprofitable businesses.

Why? In the long run, these things drive up costs. Either we pay for it with higher prices in the store or higher taxes to pay for environmental clean up. Rather than that, I’d rather we pour money into manned exploration of the outer solar system. I realize that a more pious man would pour money into feeding the homeless, but I am a science nerd and this is a science blog so I’m sticking with space exploration.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.