Plastic Bag Panic Grips the Nation


Boston, Portland, Santa Cruz, Oakland, Annapolis, Baltimore, New Haven—all are currently considering some form of plastic-bag ban, most of them total bans, on the grounds of environmental harm. The bans would cajole all stores to give up the convenience of 2-cent, water-resistant, cheaply recyclable plastic in favor of 5-cent, soggy, handle-less, expensively recyclable paper.

The initiative follows from San Francisco's ban on plastic for all supermarkets and big-chain pharmacies (the ban currently exempts all small, independent retailers and thus passes on costs mostly to the poorest consumers). Apparently, plastic bags are an environmental nuisance because people insist on throwing them into the sea, where they kill fish and other marine life. And they won't rot away for a millennium.

The anti-plastic movement has also inspired a fashion craze: ugly hemp bags (greener than plastic AND paper!). Most recently the fad saw hordes of "light greens" lining up around the block at Whole Foods to buy $15 designer bags emblazoned with the statement, "I'm NOT a plastic bag":

The greatest irony of the morning was as a result of the ongoing torrential rain. Upon leaving the store, after hours in the downpour, proud owners placed their prized new bags into Whole Foods plastic bags to keep them dry.

Enter the Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization of three plastic bag manufacturers founded to promote responsible plastic bag use (that is, in favor of no plastic bag use). The Alliance claims that the anti-plastic movement has ignored some important facts about the beloved paper they will require stores to supply. So they've started selling their own rival to the hemp craze on eBay: "I AM a plastic bag and I'm 100% recyclable":

Myth: Paper grocery bags are a better environmental choice than plastic bags.

Fact: Plastic bags use 40% less energy to produce and generate 70% less emissions & 80% less solid waste than paper. (U.S. EPA website, www.epa.gov/region1/communities/shopbags.html)

Myth:Plastic grocery bags take 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.

Fact: Today's landfills are designed to prevent decomposition of anything. Chances are your orange peel, milk carton and even last year's newspaper won't breakdown. Research by William Rathje, who runs the Garbage Project, has shown that when excavated from a landfill, newspapers from the 1960s can be intact and readable.