After LA City moved forward with the largest bag ban in the country last month, a top executive from a major plastic bag manufacturer is weaving a tale of woe and misguided concerns over the increasing popularity of bag bans.
The elephant in the room, or in this case in the article, is the fact that the company wants to continue making a profit off the sale of plastic bags and is resistant to changing from outdated single-use bags to reusables.
Hilex Poly claims that these ordinances (48 and counting in California) is "destroying the plastic bag and film recycling infrastructure, particularly in California." The company says that recycling has increased in the last 10 years and that they will recycle 50 million pounds of film and bags this year.
What they fail to say, however, is that the 50 million pounds comes out to a less than a 5% recycling rate. In 2010 according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 1.38 billion pounds of HDPE film and bags were generated. From 2009 to 2010 plastic bags and sacks generated increased by 16%. Even with the conservative assumption that the 2012 generation rates have not increased from the 2010 numbers (an increase would lower the recycling rate), the current recycling rate would be only 3.6%.
California's plastic bag recycling law has been in place since 2007, when only a handful of plastic bag ordinances were passed and before their implementation. The annual recycling rate of the program started at 2% and in 2009 jumped up to 3%. The plastic bag recycling infrastructure appears to already be failing with or without bag bans.
Hilex Poly also tries to downplay the impact of plastic bags, claiming they don’t even make up one percent of litter in California, and citing similar numbers in Texas and Florida.
But according to the San Jose bag study, two local studies between 2005 and 2009 found that plastic bags made up from 10-23% of the litter stream in areas sampled. A 2004 LA waste characterization study found 25% of the weight in storm drain catch basins was plastic bags.
Plastic bags are lightweight and compact, qualities that can reduce the bulk they add to the waste stream and environment. However, they are made from materials that don’t break down. Every year the International Coastal Cleanup picks up trash along waterways in a worldwide collaborative effort to clean up litter. For the last few years, ICC volunteers have reported that plastic bags are among the top five most commonly found item during these cleanups.
Hilex Poly also worries that a plastic bag ordinance in LA City will increase imported reusable bags that are not recyclable.
A 3.6% recycling rate is so low that single-use plastic bags are barely qualified as "recyclable". Meanwhile a recent study included reusable bags made from recyclable plastic, and indicated recycled PET reusable bags have fewer impacts than single-use bags after 8 uses. And although the LA City bag ordinance language has yet to be drafted, it is most likely to follow what LA County and other communities have done in requiring reusable bags to meet toxicity standards (for lead, cadmium and other heavy metals). Cheap exported reusable bags would not be able to meet this definition.
Hilex Poly further argues that environmentalists focus on the low recycling rate of plastic bags and overlook the reuse of these bags as trash liners, to hold pet waste, etc.
We, however, realize that even with the re-use of a plastic bag to hold a dirty diaper or bag of trash, the plastic bags still ultimately end up in landfills or littering our environment, where they can break up into smaller and smaller pieces that pollute the environment. Meanwhile, a reusable bag can be used multiple times.
They might claim that the bag ban movement is "California-centric" but the fact is that across the US and the globe, governments are taking action against plastic bag pollution. See the national list and a map of bag policies worldwide.