Friday, March 20, 2009

Taxing Plastic Bags, From Pennies Here to Millions There

Taxing Plastic Bags, From Pennies Here to Millions There
from The New York Times City Room Blog
February 2nd 2009


Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed a 5-cent fee on new plastic bags at the store register last week. While that figure was a penny lower than the 6 cents per bag proposed in November, another figure tucked on Page 34 of the 59-slide presentation was a real eye-opener. The projected revenue for this “user fee” was $84 million — a sharp increase from the last figure floated, just $16 million. Other estimates suggested the revenue would rise to $144 million by 2011 and $124 million in 2012.

How did these numbers get so high?

Two things are happening, according to the mayor’s office. First, the scope of the proposed tax — which would require approval from the State Legislature in Albany — has been expanded beyond grocery stores. It would include bags given out by department stores, restaurants and other retailers.

“It’s not just your local bodega,” said Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor. “It’s going to be your candy shop, your Macy’s.”

In addition, he said, the revenue estimate increased because the Department of Sanitation “went back and looked at the waste stream more closely and found that there are far more plastic bags used in the city than we first thought.”

Still, the estimates were surprisingly aggressive. A $144 million estimate, at 5 cents a bag, means that 2.88 billion plastic bags would be used by New Yorkers each year, even with the fee. Past estimates put that figure at one billion new plastic bags.

That breaks down to one bag for every man, woman and child in New York City every single day of the year. The site estimates that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed annually around the globe. Do New Yorkers alone really consume more than 1 out every 300 plastic bags in the world?

Though originally called a “fee” (which would only require City Council approval), the city’s top budget official said it would be considered a tax (which, like the $900 million increase in the city’s sales tax, would require approval from Albany).

The plan seems very likely to invite debate and discourse, as foot-bound New Yorkers seem unhappy at the prospect of carrying their own bags around to avoid the charges. But if the proposal passes, New York City would be following the lead of many European municipalities, and it would become one of the first places in the United States to assess a plastic bag tax. (Since 2007, San Francisco has simply banned plastic bags at the grocery store.)

Some have noted that environmental equation on reusable versus disposable bags is not so clear-cut. The more durable bags require an order of magnitude of more energy to produce. The anti-plastic campaign has drawn a sharp defense from the American Chemistry Council (every product has a constituency). The council argues that a drop in disposable plastic bags means an uptick in the purchase and use of other bags, like garbage bags, since plastic is still needed for trash and pet waste. The council has enumerated what it calls plastic bag myths.

In theory, disposable plastic bags can be recycled. But few are, despite a City Council bill that required large stores and chains to do so. Advocacy groups argue that each high-quality reusable shopping bag has the potential to eliminate hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic bags over its lifetime.

“Part of the purpose of the fee is to deter people from using the bags,” Mr. Post said. “We’ve baked into this, that the plastic bag consumption is going to fall.”

That is why the revenue estimate dips $144 million to $124 million in 2012. But will bag consumption drop just 14 percent from year to year?

After all, just a few weeks after Ireland adopted a 33-cent charge on plastic bags in 2002, plastic bag use decreased by 94 percent. Plastic bag use is not simply an issue of finances, but also public shame. Of course, 33 cents per bag is a bigger disincentive.

Mr. Post said the mayor’s office is comfortable with its figures.

“That is our projection,” he said. “Could it be wrong? It certainly could.”

Irish Bag Tax Hailed Success - August 2002

Irish bag tax hailed success


A tax on plastic shopping bags in the Republic of Ireland has cut their use by more than 90% and raised millions of euros in revenue, the government says. The tax of 15 cents per bag was introduced five months ago in an attempt to curb litter, and the improvement had been immediate and "plain to see", said Environment Minister Martin Cullen.

He said that the 3.5 million euros in extra revenue raised so far would be spent on environmental projects.

The "plastax" is being closely watched by other countries, particularly neighbouring Britain.

Bangladesh has banned polythene bags altogether while Taiwan and Singapore are taking steps to discourage their use.

"The levy has been an outstanding success in achieving what it set out to do," said Mr Cullen.

"Over one billion plastic bags will be removed from circulation while raising funding for future environmentally friendly initiatives."

He added: "It is clear that the levy has not only changed consumer behaviour in relation to disposable plastic bags, it has also raised national consciousness about the role each one of us can, and must play if we are to tackle collectively the problems of litter and waste management."

Windblown litter

The environment ministry estimated that about 1.2 billion free plastic bags were being handed out every year in the republic, leaving windblown bags littering Irish streets and the countryside.

In the three months after the tax was introduced, shops handed out just over 23 million plastic bags - about 277 million fewer than normal, the government said.

Shoppers are being encouraged to use tougher, reusable bags.

The ministry said that if the current trend continued, the tax would bring in 10 million euros in a full year.

Other countries around the world are also taking action to curb plastic bag litter.

In March, Bangladesh banned polythene bags after it was found that they were blocking drainage systems and had been a major culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country.

Taiwan and Singapore are also moving to ban free plastic bags and in South Africa they have been dubbed the "national flower" because so many can be seen flapping from fences and caught in bushes.

The Impact of Plastic Bags - from 'Message in the Waves'

This is the trailer from Rebecca Hosking's 'Message In The Waves' documentary that she filmed for the BBC.

Because of their experience in turning Coles Bay plastic bag free, Jon Dee and Ben Kearney were the key advisors to Rebecca when she turned the UK town of Modbury plastic bag free.

You can check out Rebecca's 'Message In The Waves' website at

This video appears here courtesy of BBC Natural World - Message in the Waves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Info on Plastic Bags from the Earth Resource Foundation

Campaign Against the Plastic Plague Background Info

Plastic bags are everywhere! Everyday, we are handed countless plastic bags: when we go to the grocery store, retail clothing store, book store, restaurants, etc. Yes, sometimes, plastic bags are convenient, as they are water resistant and light and inexpensive compared to paper bags. Most of the time, plastic bags are superfluous and avoidable. It seems as though store clerks are often eager to hand out plastic bags for any and all kind of purchases. Sometimes, a plastic bag is just not necessary for that apple you are about to eat or that soda you are going to drink right away. Here are some questions we should ask ourselves whenever we are handed a plastic bag:

Do I need to take as many plastic bags in supermarkets?
Do I need a plastic bag for an item purchased that is already well packaged by the manufacturer?
Could I bring my own shopping bag when making purchases?
Plastic bags are the cause of major environmental concerns. Statistics show that we are consuming more and more plastics every year. It is estimated that an average individual uses around 130 plastic bags per year. (

Most of them go straight to our landfill and a very small percentage of plastic bags are actually recycled. A reduction in our use of plastic bags is essential in solving the environmental problems stemming from them.

Here are the reasons why you should limit your consumption of plastic bags:

Plastic bags and packaging account for a major part of our waste in landfills. More importantly, plastic bags are one of the top items of litter on our community beaches, roads, sidewalks, and vegetation along with cigarette butts and Styrofoam. Plastic bags are light and hard to contain. Because of their light weight, plastic bags fly easily in wind, float along readily in the currents of rivers and oceans, get tangled up in trees, fences, poles, and so forth, and block the drainage. (
Plastic bags are made from a non-renewable natural resource: petroleum. Consequently, the manufacturing of plastic bags contributes to the diminishing availability of our natural resources and the damage to the environment from the extraction of petroleum. At the same time, plastics are hazardous to produce; the pollution from plastic production is harmful to the environment. Finally, most plastic bags are made of polyethylene - more commonly known as polythene - they are hazardous to manufacture and are said to take up to 1,000 years to decompose on land and 450 years in water. (
The fact that plastics are not biodegradable means that the plastic bags in circulation and future production of plastic bags will stay with us for a long time: in our landfills, oceans, streets, and so forth.
Countless plastic bags end up in our ocean and cause harm to our marine wildlife. Many marine animals and birds mistakenly ingest plastic or become entangled and choke in plastic bags that is floating around. For instance, environmentalists have pointed out that turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and invariably swallow them. It is estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year because of plastic litter in our ocean in the North Pacific. (
Land animals seem to be victims as well. In countries such as India, cows are mistakenly ingesting plastic bags on the streets as they are scavenging for food and end up choking or starving to death, as the plastic cannot be digested.
There is virtually no market for recycling plastic bags. Very few recycling centers accept plastic bags because they are of little recyclable value. Although your local supermarkets collect used plastic bags for recycle, very few are actually recycled. (
On the other hand, most paper bags are made from recycled paper. There is a profitable market in paper recycling and the paper bags can be used and recycled. In addition, this promotes "Buying Recycled" which is the only way that recycling efforts will ever become successful
There are many cost effective and convenient alternatives to plastic bags. Paper bags hold more than plastic bags. One paper bag has the capacity of as many as three to four plastic bags. The best alternative to using plastic bags is using cloth bags and degradable bags.
Businesses will save on cost in providing plastic bags when consumers use less of them and bring their own bags.
The international crisis, which plastic bags are creating, is indicated by the fact that most nations recognize the problem and are making strong attempts to eliminate the use and productions of plastic bags. Many countries in Europe and Asia are attempting to eradicate plastic bags. Some are banning plastic bags altogether while others are implementing a tax on plastic bags to decrease their use. In Bangladesh, plastic bags have been banned completely since early 2002. They were found to have been the main culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. The problem was that discarded bags were choking the drainage system. (
In 2001, Bombay council also eliminated the use of plastic bags to prevent them from littering the streets and clogging up the city's sewerage system. As a result, merchants have switched to recycled paper bags and litter in the city has been reduced considerably.
In Ireland, a tax on plastic bags was introduced. Essentially, each plastic bag handed out costs the consumer an extra 15 cents. After the tax scheme began in March 2002, it is estimated the plastic bags available at stores have been decreased by 90%.
These are great success stories from various countries working out the problem of plastic bags. They have set examples on how a ban or a tax on plastic bags may work. Consequently, other nations such as the United Kingdom are considering implementing similar regulations.

The most effective way of reducing the amount of plastic litter in the environment is to reduce our consumption. As consumers, we should not wait for our governments to tackle the problem of plastic bags. Change ultimately comes from everyone be it from to law restrictions of our government or from our own volition. Moreover, the most important contribution to such a campaign must come from the consumer.
-Report of the Berkeley Plastics Task Force

China imposes ban on plastic bags

Another video on China's ban on plastic bags

Whole Foods Market's plastic bag debate video

By 'bagging it,' Ireland rids itself of a plastic nuisance

By 'bagging it,' Ireland rids itself of a plastic nuisance
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Thursday, January 31, 2008


DUBLIN: There is something missing from this otherwise typical bustling cityscape.

There are taxis and buses. There are hip bars and pollution. Every other person is holding a cellphone to his ear. But there are no plastic bags, the ubiquitous symbol of urban life.

In a determined attempt to deal with litter, Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 - now 22 euro cents, about 33 U.S. cents - at the register if you want one with your purchases. There was an advertising awareness campaign. Then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.

Within weeks, there was a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use. Within a year, nearly everyone bought reusable cloth bags, which they now keep in the office and the back of their cars. Plastic bags became socially unacceptable - on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.

"When my roommate brings one in the flat, it annoys the hell out of me," said Edel Egan, a photographer carrying a load of groceries in a red backpack.

Countries from China to Australia, cities from New York to San Francisco, have promulgated laws and regulations to address the problem, with decidedly mixed success.

But in the parking lot of the Superquinn Market - Ireland's largest chain - it is clear that Ireland has solved the problem.

"I used to get half a dozen with every shop, now I'd never ever buy one," said Cathal McKeown, 40, a civil servant carrying two large cloth bags, bearing the bright green Superquinn motto. "If I forgot these, I'd just take the cart of groceries and put them loose in the boot of the car rather than buy a bag."

Gerry McCartney, 50, a data processor, who like everyone here has switched to cloth, said, "The tax is not so much, but it completely changed a very bad habit. Now you never see plastic."

As of last week, nearly 37 billion plastic bags had been used in the first weeks of 2008, according to, a figure that rises by about a half million bags every minute. The vast majority are not used again, ending up as waste, landfill or litter. Because plastic bags are light and compressible, they constitute only 2 percent of landfill, but since most are not biodegradable they will be there for decades. Plastic bags were invented in the 1970s.

"In the last year, as people have become more conscious about the environment, this has become a lightning rod issue, because its something everyone can relate to," said Vincent Cobb, founder and president of, an entrepreneur who founded the company four years ago to promote the issue. "In most of the world you buy anything and you get a plastic bag."

He added: "Plastic bags are a brilliant product but they are a victim of their own success. They've been perceived of as free when they have a real cost to the environment and to consumers."

Before the so called plas tax, Ireland was struggling with a plastic bag problem that is typical in much of the world. Frank Convery, a professor at University College Dublin and head of ENFO, Ireland's environmental information service, said: "You'd be driving in the Irish countryside and the sides of the roads were covered in plastic - when the foliage dropped off in the fall what was left on branches was a bunch of old plastic bags waving in the wind. That's gone and people love it."

In Ireland, all money from the plastic bag tax goes directly to the environment ministry for use in enforcement and clean-up projects. In a few countries, such as Germany, grocers have long charged a nominal fee for bags and cloth bags are common. But they are the exception.

Bangladesh and some African nations have sought to ban plastic bags because they clog fragile sewer systems, creating a health hazard. And they float in the ocean, endangering marine life.

In the past few months, a number of countries have announced new plans: China will prohibit sellers from handing out free plastic shopping bags this summer during the Olympics, but the charge is not specified and there is little capacity for enforcement. Australia has announced it wants to ban free plastic bags by the end of the year but has not decided how to do it.

"It is on the agenda on many places - people who looked before and gave up, are looking it again," said Simon McDonnell, a researcher at the University of Illinois, who has studied Ireland's legislation.

Attempts at taxing plastic bags have failed in many places because of opposition from manufacturers and merchants, who felt it would be bad for business. In Britain as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco, proposed taxes failed to gain political approval, although San Francisco passed a ban last year. Countries like Italy have settled for voluntary participation.

But there were no plastic bag makers in Ireland (most bags here came from China) and a forceful environment minister gave reluctant shopkeepers little room: It is illegal for shopkeepers to pay for the bags on behalf of their customers.

More to the point, the environment minister told shopkeepers that if they merely changed from plastic to paper, he would tax those bags too.

While paper bags are in some ways better for the environment in terms of litter, studies suggest their manufacture causes more Co2 emissions than making plastic bags.

Today, Ireland's retailers are great plas tax boosters.

"I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister, I thought customers wouldn't accept it," said Feargal Quinn, a senator and founder of Ireland's largest chain of supermarkets. "But I have become a big, big enthusiast."

Quinn, nicknamed Ireland's "pope of customer service" for his meticulous attention to detail at his stores, added: "We were using millions of plastic bags a year and they were all being imported and only used once.

"Now we're saving the environment, we're reducing litter and since we're not paying for bags it ultimately save money for us and that reduces the price of food for our customers."

Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce, an industry group representing 6 million European shops. In that capacity, he has repeatedly encouraged the implementation of a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members aren't buying it. "They say, oh, no, no - it wouldn't work, it wouldn't be acceptable in our country."

As governments fail to take decisive action, some environmentally friendly chains have moved in with their own policies, Whole Foods Market announced this month that its stores would no longer offer plastic bags (they will use recycled paper or cloth). Many chains are starting to make customers pay for plastic bags.

"There's been a huge turnaround on this issue and I think with in the next 12 months, companies that want to be seen as leaders in the environment - like Wal-Mart and Home Depot - will be offering reusable options," Cobb said.

But such ad hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax.

Indeed, Quinn said that a decade ago his Superquinn stores tried unilaterally to charge for plastic bags, customers rebelled. He found himself standing at the cash register buying bags for customers with change from his pockets to prevent them from going elsewhere.

After 5 years of the plas tax, Ireland has effectively rebranded plastic and cloth bags, a feat Cobb hopes to achieve in the United States.

"Using cloth bags has been seen as an extreme act of a crazed environmentalist. We want it to be seen as something a smart progressive person would carry."

Last year, the bag tax was raised from 15 to 22 cents, after officials noted that consumption was rising slightly.

Some things worked to Ireland's advantage: Almost all markets are part of chains and highly computerized with cash registers that already collect government's value added tax, or VAT. That meant a minimum of re-programming to add the bag tax, and also little room for evasion - which would be much more of a problem in the small markets in the developing world.

Ireland has a young, flexible population that has proved a good testing ground for innovation: from cell phone services to non-smoking laws (it passed the first in Europe in 2004).

Ireland has proposed similar "polluter pays" taxes on ATM receipts and chewing gum. (The sidewalks of Dublin are dotted with old wads.) The latter has been avoided for the time being because chewing gum giant Wrigley's agreed to create a "clean up fund" as an alternative to a tax on its customers.

This year, the government plans to ban the sale of conventional light bulbs, making only low energy long life bulbs for sale.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Plastic Bag Monster Video

China Goes Green video

It's Not My Bag, Baby

It's Not My Bag, Baby!

by L.J. Williamson

from the summer of 2003

It was the grooviest thing to come along since, oh, Tupperware, but after 25 years the plastic bag is proving that, indeed, breaking up is hard to do. I decided about six months ago to make a tiny but, to my mind, revolutionary environmental step: I started bringing two heavy-duty plastic beach totes with me to the grocery store. My tote bags practically screamed out, "Look who's helping the environment!" But no one else seemed very impressed. Just confused.

Here's what usually happens: The cashier looks at my totes, which I've already placed in the bagging area, and searches for their price tags. When she can't find a bar code, she asks me where I got them. "Target," I say cheerfully. I get a quizzical look, then explain that I brought them to put my groceries in. Sometimes it gets very complicated. Once, the bag boy for my lane saw the totes and felt the need to call over another bagger for help. The two of them stood there for a long time, puzzling over the right way to place my groceries inside these strange new contraptions. "I've never seen this kind of bag before," said the first one. The second bagger made a halting grab for a brick of cheese, peered inside the bag, and gingerly dropped it in. Emboldened by this, the first guy took a carton of eggs and placed it alongside the cheese. The novelty of the situation had so befuddled their adolescent brains that they neglected the cardinal rule of bagging: breakables on top. The cashier interceded and replaced the eggs with a can of SpaghettiOs.

As I left, I overheard the first bagger say, "Why would someone bring their own bags?" To which the other replied, "Because plastic bags last for, like, 50 years in a landfill." "Really?" says the first guy. What I thought was by now common knowledge is still coming as news to bag boys.

Go to Europe and the best way to find the local farmers' market is to follow the people carrying woven bags on their arms. But here in the United States, bringing your own never caught on, in spite of the multitudes who bought copies of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth . Right now, 80 percent of our groceries go home in plastic bags.

And so, with tote bags in hand, I get strange looks. If I tell people, "I use these to help keep plastic out of landfills," I get an oh-you're-one-of-those-types look. But if I simply say, "I already have such a huge pile of plastic bags at home," the response is more sympathetic: "Oh, I know just what you mean!" Everyone, it seems, is afraid of that impending avalanche behind the pantry door.

And that's really what I'm reacting to: the ubiquity of the plastic bag. Nothing epitomizes better the mindless profligacy of our consumer culture than these cheap, flimsy, yet depressingly indestructible little bags that get caught in our trees, blow down streets, and wash up on our beaches. Look around -- they're everywhere. Americans throw away one hundred billion polyethylene bags a year. They choke thousands of marine animals annually; the inks used to print all those smiley faces break down in landfills and create a toxic seep. Though plastic bags take up less than four percent of all landfill space (they're easily compressed), estimates on how long they take to decompose range from a hundred years to a thousand, despite what the bag boys at my local supermarket think.

Which is why in other places around the world, this homely bag has finally entered the political spotlight. On January 1, Taiwan banned the free distribution of plastic bags in supermarkets and other stores. Bangladesh began enforcing its own ban after discovering that discarded bags were clogging drainage and sewage lines, which increased flooding and the incidence of waterborne diseases. South Africa now prohibits all plastic bags under 30 microns thick (typical grocery bags are 18 microns) in the hope that customers will reuse the sturdier bags. The flimsier sort came to festoon so much of the country's landscape that South Africans began to call the plastic bag their "national flower."

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand are all considering imposing a tax on plastic bags since Ireland instituted a 15 cent per bag tax in March 2002, which has reduced bag use by 90 percent. Grocery stores complained about having to collect the tax, which requires them to ring up bags like additional purchases. But as a spokesman for an Irish supermarket chain explained to the London Independent , "Eventually, most people said, yes, it's the right thing to do. We just needed to be pushed into it."

Yet few think a tax, much less a ban, on plastic bags would take hold in the United States. Our grocery stores strive to create a perfect "climate of consumption," where nothing impedes the consumer from impulse to purchase, explains Allen Hershkowitz, a recycling expert at NRDC. "For stores, it's not just a cost issue; it's about them making the customer's experience as convenient as possible."

The film American Beauty , which features a long, poetic clip of a plastic bag swirling on an eddy of air, snagged five Academy Awards, yet I for one still find it hard to think of plastic bags as things of beauty. But as a product -- as something created and then unleashed to become seamlessly integrated into the lives of millions of people around the world -- there is a strange allure to them, just as a pathologist can admire the structure of a particularly virulent and contagious virus.

Polyethylene was invented in the 1930s, but it wasn't used to take our groceries home until 1977. Visionaries of the plastics industry saw the bags as a way to increase their market share in grocery stores beyond the already omnipresent tear-from-the-roll sacks in the produce department. But the real watershed came in 1982, when the industry persuaded two of the nation's largest supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger, to replace traditional paper bags with the much more cost-effective plastic model. For customers, the appeal could be summed up in one word: handles. Paper bags didn't get handles until the late 1990s, and by then it was too late. Plastic had taken over.

Of course, no one thought ahead about how we would dispose of all this new waste. Only an estimated 0.6 percent of grocery bags are recycled. Recyclers who collect at curbside don't want them because they clog up their machinery. Grocery stores began offering recycling bins for plastic bags in the early 1990s, but much of what's collected ends up in the garbage dump anyway. A little piece of Saran Wrap, or a tiny bit of moisture from a head of lettuce, can ruin a whole batch and send it to the landfill, explains Linda Smith, a spokeswoman for the Boulder, Colorado-based recycler Eco-cycle.

According to one commonly cited study from 1997, 58 percent of Americans prefer paper to plastic; yet a report by the Film and Bag Federation the year before found that four out of the five grocery bags we actually use are plastic. How to explain the discrepancy? People actually do prefer paper (despite paper's own environmental problems; see "Tough Choice"), but supermarkets have made it difficult to choose anything but plastic.

Stores have a financial interest in keeping their checkout lines moving smoothly, and having more than one option at the end of the line slows things down. A spokesman for Ralph's, one of California's large supermarket chains, would not admit to any company bias other than "customer choice," but a checker I spoke with at one of their stores told me that employees were explicitly instructed to use plastic if the customer expressed no preference. More important to supermarket execs everywhere: price. Plastic bags cost about four cents each, while the average paper bag costs twice that amount. True, paper bags hold between two and three times as much as plastic ones, but when all the numbers are crunched, supermarkets still save by using plastic when you factor in all those "single-bag" orders, in which a customer's entire purchase fits into a single sack, whether it's paper or plastic.

You'd think that stores would be thanking me then for bringing my own bags and saving them money. Not true. The owners of U.S. supermarkets might be reluctant to cast aspersions (publicly) on their valued customers, but stores that have faced restrictions on plastic bags in other countries have complained that encouraging customers to bring their own simply encourages petty theft. It's not hard to find evidence of that attitude here at home. Recently, I bought a single bottle of soda at a convenience mart.

"That's okay, I don't need a bag," I said, and handed it back to the young woman behind the register.

"It's our policy that we put everything in a bag," she explained. "If you don't want it, you can just throw it away when you get outside."

"Your policy isn't that great for the environment," I said.

"Yeah, but if we see someone carrying something out in a bag, we know they're not shoplifting."

"How about I just keep my receipt?" I said. "That should prove I didn't shoplift." Once outside, I turned around and watched the cashier toss my bag into the garbage.

We've got a long way to go.

Plastic Bags Are Killing Us

The most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, the lowly plastic bag is an environmental scourge like none other, sapping the life out of our oceans and thwarting our attempts to recycle it.

By Katharine Mieszkowski


Aug. 10, 2007 | On a foggy Tuesday morning, kids out of school for summer break are learning to sail on the waters of Lake Merritt. A great egret hunts for fish, while dozens of cormorants perch, drying their wings. But we're not here to bird-watch or go boating. Twice a week volunteers with the Lake Merritt Institute gather on these shores of the nation's oldest national wildlife refuge to fish trash out of the water, and one of their prime targets is plastic bags. Armed with gloves and nets with long handles, like the kind you'd use to fish leaves out of a backyard swimming pool, we take to the shores to seek our watery prey.

Dr. Richard Bailey, executive director of the institute, is most concerned about the bags that get waterlogged and sink to the bottom. "We have a lot of animals that live on the bottom: shrimp, shellfish, sponges," he says. "It's like you're eating at your dinner table and somebody comes along and throws a plastic tarp over your dinner table and you."

This morning, a turtle feeds serenely next to a half submerged Walgreens bag. The bag looks ghostly, ethereal even, floating, as if in some kind of purgatory suspended between its briefly useful past and its none-too-promising future. A bright blue bags floats just out of reach, while a duck cruises by. Here's a Ziploc bag, there a Safeway bag. In a couple of hours, I fish more than two dozen plastic bags out of the lake with my net, along with cigarette butts, candy wrappers and a soccer ball. As we work, numerous passersby on the popular trail that circles the urban lake shout their thanks, which is an undeniable boost. Yet I can't help being struck that our efforts represent a tiny drop in the ocean. If there's one thing we know about these plastic bags, it's that there are billions and billions more where they came from.

The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They're made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide -- about 2 percent in the U.S. -- and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries. They can spend eternity in landfills, but that's not always the case. "They're so aerodynamic that even when they're properly disposed of in a trash can they can still blow away and become litter," says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. It's as litter that plastic bags have the most baleful effect. And we're not talking about your everyday eyesore.

Once aloft, stray bags cartwheel down city streets, alight in trees, billow from fences like flags, clog storm drains, wash into rivers and bays and even end up in the ocean, washed out to sea. Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands. Floating bags can look all too much like tasty jellyfish to hungry marine critters. According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic. The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In the Northern Pacific Gyre, a great vortex of ocean currents, there's now a swirling mass of plastic trash about 1,000 miles off the coast of California, which spans an area that's twice the size of Texas, including fragments of plastic bags. There's six times as much plastic as biomass, including plankton and jellyfish, in the gyre. "It's an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look," says Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of education and research for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which studies plastics in the marine environment. "Fifty or 60 years ago, there was no plastic out there."

Following the lead of countries like Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and Taiwan, some U.S. cities are striking back against what they see as an expensive, wasteful and unnecessary mess. This year, San Francisco and Oakland outlawed the use of plastic bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies, permitting only paper bags with at least 40 percent recycled content or otherwise compostable bags. The bans have not taken effect yet, but already the city of Oakland is being sued by an association of plastic bag manufacturers calling itself the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. Meanwhile, other communities across the country, including Santa Monica, Calif., New Haven, Conn., Annapolis, Md., and Portland, Ore., are considering taking drastic legislative action against the bags. In Ireland, a now 22-cent tax on plastic bags has slashed their use by more than 90 percent since 2002. In flood-prone Bangladesh, where plastic bags choked drainage systems, the bags have been banned since 2002.

The problem with plastic bags isn't just where they end up, it's that they never seem to end. "All the plastic that has been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces," says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn't biodegrade. That means unless they've been incinerated -- a noxious proposition -- every plastic bag you've ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn't a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you're dead.

Grand efforts are under way to recycle plastic bags, but so far those efforts have resulted mostly in a mass of confusion. A tour of Recycle Central in San Francisco makes it easy to see why. The plant is a Willie Wonka factory of refuse. Located on a bay pier with a stunning view of the downtown skyline, some 700 tons of discarded annual reports, Rolling Rock bottles, Diet Coke cans, cardboard boxes, Tide plastic detergent bottles and StarKist tuna fish cans surge into this warehouse every weekday, dumped from trucks into a great clattering, shifting mound. The building tinkles and thumps with the sound of thousands of pounds of glass, aluminum, paper, plastic and cardboard knocking together, as all this detritus passes through a dizzying network of conveyor belts, spinning disks, magnets and gloved human hands to emerge as 16 different sorted, recyclable commodities, baled up by the ton to be shipped or trucked away and made into something new again. It's one way that the city of San Francisco manages to divert some 69 percent of its waste from landfills. But this city's vaunted recycling program, which is so advanced that it can collect coffee grounds and banana peels from urbanites' apartment kitchens and transform them into compost used to grow grapes in Napa Valley vineyards, simply cannot master the plastic bag.

Ask John Jurinek, the plant manager at Recycle Central, what's wrong with plastic bags and he has a one-word answer: "Everything." Plastic bags, of which San Franciscans use some 180 million per year, cannot be recycled here. Yet the hopeful arrow symbol emblazoned on the bags no doubt inspires lots of residents to toss their used ones into the blue recycling bin, feeling good that they've done the right thing. But that symbol on all kinds of plastic items by no means guarantees they can be recycled curbside. (The plastic bags collected at the recycling plant are trucked to the regular dump.) By chucking their plastic bags in the recycling, what those well-meaning San Franciscans have done is throw a plastic wrench into the city's grand recycling factory. If you want to recycle a plastic bag it's better to bring it back to the store where you got it.

As the great mass of recyclables moves past the initial sort deck on a series of spinning disks, stray plastic bags clog the machinery. It's such a problem that one machine is shut down while a worker wearing kneepads and armed with a knife spends an hour climbing precariously on the disks to cut the bags out, yielding a Medusa's hair-mass of wrenched and twisted plastic. In the middle of the night, when the vast sorting operation grinds to a halt to prepare for the next 700-ton day, two workers will spend hours at this dirty job.

Some states are attacking the recycling problem by trying to encourage shoppers to take the bags back to grocery stores. California requires large grocery stores and pharmacies that distribute the bags known in the trade as T-shirt bags -- those common polyethylene bags with two handles, usually made from petroleum or natural gas -- to take them back for recycling, and to print instructions on the bags to encourage shoppers to return them to the stores. San Francisco Environment Department spokesperson Mark Westlund, who can see plastic bags lodged in the trees on Market Street from his second-story office window, is skeptical about the state's ability to get shoppers to take back their bags. "We've had in store recycling in San Francisco for over 10 years, and it's never really been successful," says Westlund, who estimates that the city achieved only a 1 percent recycling rate of plastic bags at the stores. "People have to pack up the bags, bring them into the store and drop them off. I think you'd be more inclined to bring your own bag than do that."

Regardless, polyethylene plastic bags are recyclable, says Howie Fendley, a senior environmental chemist for MBDC, an ecological design firm. "It's a matter of getting the feedstock to the point where a recycler can economically justify taking those bags and recycling them. The problem is they're mostly air. There has to be a system in place where they get a nice big chunk of polyethylene that can be mechanically ground, melted and then re-extruded."

So far that system nationwide consists mainly of supermarkets and superstores like Wal-Mart voluntarily stockpiling the bags brought back in by conscientious shoppers, and selling them to recyclers or plastic brokers, who in turn sell them to recyclers. In the U.S., one company buys half of the used plastic bags available on the open market in the United States, using about 1.5 billion plastic bags per year. That's Trex, based in Winchester, Va., which makes composite decking out of the bags and recycled wood. It takes some 2,250 plastic bags to make a single 16-foot-long, 2-inch-by-6-inch plank. It might feel good to buy decking made out of something that otherwise could have choked a sea turtle, but not so fast. That use is not an example of true recycling, points out Carol Misseldine, sustainability coordinator for the city of Oakland. "We're not recycling plastic bags into plastic bags," she says. "They're being downcycled, meaning that they're being put into another product that itself can never be recycled."

Unlike a glass beer bottle or an aluminum can, it's unusual that a plastic bag is made back into another plastic bag, because it's typically more expensive than just making a new plastic bag. After all, the major appeal of plastic bags to stores is that they're much cheaper than paper. Plastic bags cost grocery stores under 2 cents per bag, while paper goes for 4 to 6 cents and compostable bags 9 to 14 cents. However, says Eriksen from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, "The long-term cost of having these plastic bags blowing across our landscape, across our beaches and accumulating in the northern Pacific far outweighs the short-term loss to a few."

Of course, shoppers could just bring their own canvas bags, and avoid the debate altogether. The California bag recycling law also requires stores to sell reusable bags. Yet it will be a sad irony if outlawing the bags, as San Francisco and Oakland have, doesn't inspire shoppers to bring their own canvas bags, but simply sends them to paper bags, which come with their own environmental baggage. In fact, plastic bags were once thought to be an ecologically friendly alternative to cutting down trees to make paper ones. It takes 14 million trees to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used every year by Americans, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Yet suggesting that plastic bags made out of petroleum are a better choice burns up Barger from the Earth Resources Foundation. "People say, 'I'm using plastic. I'm saving trees,'" he says. "But have you ever seen what Shell, Mobil and Chevron are doing down in the rain forests to get oil?"

Gordon Bennett, an executive in the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees. "The fundamental thing about trees is that if you manage them properly they're a renewable resource," he says. "I haven't heard about the oil guys growing more oil lately." Still, as the plastic bag industry never tires of pointing out, paper bags are heavier than plastic bags, so they take more fossil fuels to transport. Some life cycle assessments have put plastic bags out ahead of paper, when it comes to energy and waste in the manufacturing process. But paper bags with recycled content, like those soon to be required in San Francisco and Oakland, use less energy and produce less waste than those made from virgin paper.

The only salient answer to paper or plastic is neither. Bring a reusable canvas bag, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. However, if you have to make a choice between the two, she recommends taking whichever bag you're more likely to reuse the most times, since, like many products, the production of plastic or paper bags has the biggest environmental impact, not the disposal of them. "Reusing is a better option because it avoids the purchase of another product."

Some stores, like IKEA, have started trying to get customers to bring their own bags by charging them 5 cents per plastic bag. The Swedish furniture company donates the proceeds from the bag sales to a conservation group. Another solution just might be fashion. Bringing your own bag -- or BYOB as Whole Foods dubs it -- is the latest eco-chic statement. When designer Anya Hindmarch's "I am not a plastic bag" bag hit stores in Taiwan, there was so much demand for the limited-edition bag that the riot police had to be called in to control a stampede, which sent 30 people to the hospital.

-- By Katharine Mieszkowski

Wikipedia's Plastic Bag info

Plastic shopping bags, or carrier bags or plastic grocery bags, are a common type of shopping bag in several countries. Most often these bags are intended for a single use to carry items from a store to a home: reuse for storage or trash (bin bags) is common. 

Plastic was first introduced by Alexander Parkes in 1862, and the name was coined by Leo H Baekeland in 1909.  Plastic bags are often made from polyethylene, which consists of a long chain of monomers called ethylene. Ethylene is derived from natural gas and petroleum, and it wasn’t until 1977 that polyethylene was used in forms of plastic grocery bags. The real change in grocery bags didn’t start until 1982, when the two of America’s largest grocery companies Safeway and Kroger started replacing paper bags with more affordable plastic bags. From then on, the usage of plastic bags became the standard for carrying daily groceries from the store, to our vehicles, and finally to our homes.


Plastic shopping bags are usually made of polyethylene. This can be low-density, resin identification code 4, or most often high-density, resin identification code 2.
Although not in use today, plastic shopping bags could be made from Polylactic acid (PLA) a biodegradable polymer derived from lactic acid. This is one form of vegetable-based bioplastic. This material biodegrades quickly under composting conditions and does not leave toxic residue. 

Bags made of biodegradable polythene film, which decompose when exposed to sun, air, and moisture, and are also suited for composting have been proposed as an alternative to conventional plastic shopping bags. However, they do not readily decompose in a sealed landfill and represent a possible contaminant to plastic recycling operations. Resin identification code 7 is applicable.

Plastic Bag Restrictions

Currently, many countries have either banned plastic bags, or forced customers to pay a tax or levy on each bag used in stores. Australia, China, India, and several African nations have an outright ban on plastic bags. Germany and Ireland instituted a tax on bags. In Ireland, the now 22 euro cents, about 33 U.S. cents tax resulted in a 94% drop in plastic bag use. In the United States, San Francisco became the first city to ban plastic bags, though the ban only applies to large supermarkets. Oakland now also has a ban for large supermarkets. Thirty towns in Alaska have banned plastic bag use. Many other U.S. cities and states foresee similar bans or taxes going into effect by 2010.  Whole Foods Market stopped offering plastic grocery bags on Earth Day 2008, and now offers only paper or reusable bags to customers. 

Plastic Bags

Info on plastic bags 

Every Bag Counts...

This blog is to recognize and publicize the end of the era of the plastic bag & its constituents.

The name stems from Whole Food Markets's reusable celebrity designed bag.  The bag is purchaseable & even replaced by the company if it wears out.