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Unsustainable Environmentalism

Bans on the plastic bag are a classic case of style over substance

By Juliet S. Samuel, None

Last month, San Francisco’s ban on the polyethylene plastic bag—cheap, convenient, and 100 percent recyclable—celebrated its first anniversary (although it has only been in effect since September). The ban banished the bags from 50 of San Francisco’s largest supermarkets and has reportedly reduced usage by five million bags so far. In its place: Government-mandated paper bags, compostable plastic, and reusable canvas sacks.

The ban on plastic bags was passed in March 2007 in order to stop consumers from making the wrong choice for the environment. But those responsible for the ban didn’t seem to quite understand what that meant: “We’re not taking away any choices,” said Mark Westlund of the San Francisco Environmental Department. Pressed, he switched from denial to paternalism: “We’ve taken away a choice that is a detrimental choice.”

And the trend has spread: At least 10 U.S. cities have considered or passed some form of ban on the innocent polyethylene bag, from Oakland to Boston, Annapolis to Portland. And, in an effort to seem green, government ministers from England to Australia have promised to wage war on plastic. Reportedly, plastic bags clog up landfills and kill fish; they guzzle oil and energy; they decay far slower than other waste and are difficult to recycle. In fact, the bans are a case of style over substance: Plastic bags are relatively harmless in environmental terms, and where they are a problem, the ultimate issue is littering, not bag use.

One problem is that those backing the bans seem to be confused as to the true impact of these flimsy sacks. Alderman Sam Shropshire, sponsor of a bill to ban them in Annapolis, Md., last year (the ban was rejected in Novermber) compares plastic bag use to DDT: “It’s wrong, it’s immoral,” he says, “They’re inundating our environment.”

Supposedly, littered bags wreak havoc on environmentally sensitive areas where they get caught in rivers and entangle birds and fish. But if the ban had gone through, the cure might have been worse than the disease: According to the EPA, paper bags discharge significantly more water and air pollutants than plastic.

Of course, plastic is derived from a non-renewable resource—oil. But it’s misleading to claim that their use constitutes a crisis. All of America’s annual 100 billion plastic bags are made from 12 million barrels of oil—0.15 percent of the U.S.’s total yearly oil consumption. And a Waste Characterization Study for California in 2004 concluded that the bags account for just 0.4 percent of the total content of landfills.

Yet some proponents of anti-plastic measures seem misinformed. “Any environmentalist would argue when push comes to shove, paper is better for the environment than plastic,” says Maria Blanchard, Press Secretary to Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce, who wants to introduce a statewide tax on plastic bags in his home state. The senator’s office needs to check its facts: According to ReusableBags.com, an organization founded to promote the use of canvas sacks, plastic bags take four times less energy to produce and 91 percent less energy to recycle than paper, and Professor Bill Rathje, director of The Garbage Project, says they are at least three times less voluminous, requiring fewer gas-guzzling trucks to move them around and taking up less space in landfills.

Of course, the idea is to encourage consumers to bring reusable canvas totes to the store instead of using paper—in Shropshire’s case by mailing 15,000 of them to his constituents. But it’s not the hemp bags’ lack of availability that makes them unpopular—IKEA sells them for 59 cents. Consumers just aren’t convinced that the personal and environmental benefits of using them are worth the inconvenience of carrying ten canvas sacks for the week’s groceries. If they were, a ban wouldn’t be necessary.

So the likely upshot of banning plastic is an increase in the use of paper bags, which cost more energy to produce and take up more space than plastic. Supposedly, paper is better anyway, because it has a higher recycling rate than plastic—around 20 percent versus a rather dismal one percent. But the comparison is not entirely apt: The country currently uses only 7 billion paper sacks per year, compared to 100 billion plastic bags. And paper has an organic, green image, making its users more likely to be the recycling type. When the average consumer, no more or less informed than she was yesterday, find her most convenient shopping option banned she’s unlikely to start recycling soggy paper sacks.

And most importantly, a ban is the one sure way to stop progress in its tracks. Modern plastic bags are the most environmentally friendly yet: They thinned down a third between 1977 and 1990, and have even started to appear in biodegradable form (at least these compostable bags are exempt from the San Francisco ban). Banning the product removes the incentive to improve it, just as it discourages individuals from educating themselves about their choices. Environmentalists need to reflect upon these long-term consequences before they charge in with sledgehammers to kill flies. Their current mentality—“for your own good”—simply isn’t sustainable.


Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator affiliated with Eliot House.

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