Seattle's plastic-bag ban ignores reality

There's talk about using Seattle's new ordinance as a model for the state. But it would only compound the mistakes to take something that is just a feel-good measure to a bigger stage.

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Seattle City Councilmembers take on the plastic bag industry.

There's talk about using Seattle's new ordinance as a model for the state. But it would only compound the mistakes to take something that is just a feel-good measure to a bigger stage.

Good public policy is not always popular. It’s not even always intuitive. But it is based on proven facts and reflection upon the consequences.

Those of us at Hilex Poly have expressed our opposition to Seattle’s plastic bag ban because it is none of these. And so, even with the new ban on the books, I wanted to take the time to provide the facts that have been omitted from this discussion — because Seattle residents deserve to know the truth.

Plastic bags may be a visible target, but when we consider the facts, the plastic bag ban is a misguided policy for three reasons. First, targeting a single product is highly ineffective; second, a ban has the unintended effect of driving consumers toward less sustainable alternatives; and third, a ban overlooks an effective, forward-thinking solution that is encapsulated in the oft-cited phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle."

We all agree that plastic litter — in the Puget Sound or anywhere else — is unacceptable. But if we are serious about litter, we need to look at the problem in its entirety.

Singling out one product isn’t the solution, especially when multiple litter studies have shown plastic grocery bags are less than 1 percent of all litter. Junk food wrappers, cigarette butts, paper, all make up bigger portions of litter. Ultimately, eliminating one product will have a minimal impact on overall litter. Meanwhile, plastic bags are sanitary, 100 percent recyclable and reused by 9 out of 10 consumers.

What’s worse is that in the rush to ban plastic bags, unintended consequences were overlooked; in particular, the fact that a bag ban drives consumers to less sustainable alternatives. Despite a 5-cent fee on paper bags, increased paper bag usage will be one of several unintended consequences of this ordinance. Paper bags leave a much greater environmental footprint than the plastic equivalent; they require more water and energy to produce and more space and trucks to transport. That’s why we transitioned away from paper bags in the first place.

Even reusable bags, which are frequently championed by advocates of the plastic bag ban, aren’t nearly as consequence-free as they’re made out to be. When you think about it, that’s hardly a surprise. Importing reusable bags from overseas at a rate of 500 million each year takes no small toll on the environment, and many have been found to contain lead.

In the effort to promote behavioral change, municipalities such as Montgomery County, Maryland, have taken to distributing these reusable, non-recyclable bags for free — bundles of unused bags simply become additional waste. Further, reusable bags need to be washed frequently to alleviate food borne pathogens.

Recycling works, plain and simple. That’s why we have consistently advocated for a statewide recycling program in Washington; it would prove much better for the environment than banning one product, in one city. True, recycling is not a one-and-done measure, wherein we can wash our hands of it once the law is on the books. It requires continued buy-in from politicians, retailers and, most of all, ordinary citizens. Taking a few minutes to collect your plastic bags, sacks, and wraps and dropping them off at your market’s recycling bin is a small price to pay for a cleaner environment.

There’s little doubt that Washingtonians are up to the challenge. That’s why the recently passed plastic bag ban is frustrating. Not only will it promote counterproductive habits, but it will discourage plastic recycling. Prevented from providing 100 percent recyclable plastic bags, existing plastic recycling programs at local grocery stores will soon lapse.

Without local drop off points, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, and discarded plastic packaging from holiday gifts — an estimated 125,000 tons this holiday season, according to Marketplace radio — will end up in the trash, the exact opposite of what environmentally minded residents desire.

In light of all that’s going on — unemployment, a budget deficit and the need for more high quality jobs — it is perplexing that so much time – two hearings, a press conference, and a dedicated council meeting – has been spent to ban a 100 percent recyclable, U.S.-made product. All the more so when we reflect on the fact that plastic bags make up a fraction of 1 percent of all litter.

With comments circulating about bringing Seattle’s new bag ban to the state-level, residents deserve to know the truth about this plastic bag ban: namely, that it’s a feel-good measure that forces us towards less environmentally friendly alternatives. It’s an instance of public policy informed by emotion rather than facts — the type of policy making that should be avoided, not replicated.


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