On January 1, Los Angeles became the largest U.S. city to ban single-use plastic bags in large grocery stores. Now, hundreds of cities have instituted such a ban, typically charging consumers 5 or 10 cents for using a paper bag if they don’t bring their own reusable bag. With this “ban the bag” practice picking up steam, (if it hasn’t happened already) it’s only a short while before you–as one of the ecological and sustainability stewards in your organization– will be asked to weigh in on this topic. To help you decide where you might stand, we present both sides of the issue for your consideration.

For Los Angeles residents, the perfect holiday gift this year might have been a reusable grocery bag. On January 1, Los Angeles became the latest–and largest– U.S. city to ban the use of plastic bags. Large grocery stores will be prohibited by law from providing free plastic bags, and shoppers will be required to bring their own bags when stocking up on food and goods, or pay 10 cents per paper bag provided by the grocery store.

In backing the new law, Los Angeles City Council members cited concerns that the disposable bags often end up on city streets and eventually find their way to the ocean, where they threaten fish and wildlife. Los Angeles became the largest city in the nation to ban plastic bags. Chicago and New York are looking at similar policies for their communities.

At least 90 cities and counties in California alone—including unincorporated Los Angeles County—have passed similar legislation. And efforts to extend the ban statewide are well underway. Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, said his 400 members back a statewide bill because it would provide “consistency and predictability for consumers and retailers.” Complying with dozens of slightly different city and county laws is complicated and expensive, he said. It’s clear that efforts to impose a ban statewide will not cease, and California is certainly not alone.

The case against plastic bags. According to environmentalists and others in favor of the ban, single-use bags are a form of “urban tumbleweed” that fouls creek beds, parks and beaches and is harmful to wildlife and marine animals. They also contend that the bags are difficult to recycle, with less than five percent being repurposed. (Recycling numbers vary from less than one percent to almost fifteen percent, depending on the source.) “They blow off the face of landfills and out of transfer stations,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “This is a problem product and the best solution is to phase them out.”

Plastic has an extremely slow decomposition rate, particularly in water, so bags that reach the watershed can then drift on the ocean for untold years. According to Algalita Marine Research Foundation, these plastic bags cause the death of many marine animals (fish, sea turtles, etc.) every year when animals mistake them for food. Numbers were kept on 43 different types of refuse in the ocean. Somewhat surprisingly, cigarette butts were the most common but plastic bags came in second. (Ocean Conservancy, 2008)

When plastics break down, they don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments, which can then more readily soak up toxins. They then can contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion. “Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but a single plastic bag could have a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.” So say the ban aficionados.

The other side of the story.
As in almost any discussion of this sort, there are two sides to the story. Plastic bag manufacturers counter that their products are made of 100% recyclable material that is regularly reused by consumers. Lightweight plastic bags take up less room than paper bags in landfills and account for only 2% of all litter, said a fact sheet from a trade group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance.

Plastic grocery bags require 70% less energy to manufacture than paper bags, and produce half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. In addition, plastic bags take up 85 percent less space than paper bags in landfills. Additionally, reusable bags can over the course of multiple uses become a source of germs and bacteria. (Think of a leaky container of chicken as an example.)

The trade group goes on to add that plastic bags of the type used by grocery stores are 100% recyclable, and thousands of American families depend on the jobs provided by the country’s growing, green recycling and manufacturing industry. The rate of Americans recycling their plastic bags has increased significantly over the past decade, and the products being developed utilizing recycled plastic are growing quickly. Decking and other building products that last well beyond chemically treated (and scarce) wood sources are just one example.

Recycling is a growing industry that is having an impact

  • In 2011, an estimated one billion pounds of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were recycled. The same report showed that plastic bag and film recovery has increased by 55% since 2005.
  • Consumers can bring their plastic bags, sacks and wraps to participating stores and drop them into plastic bag recycling bins. From there, the bags and wraps are picked up for recycling.
  • According to the EPA, the recycling rate of polyethylene bags, sacks and wraps in 2010 was 14.7%, a 23.8% increase from the rate in 2009. Recycling of polyethylene bags, sacks and wraps has now grown in nine out of the last 10 years. • More than 30,000 Americans in 349 plants are supported by the country’s recycling and manufacturing industry.
  • Plastic bag manufacturers continue to create jobs with benefits and invest in green technologies that revolutionize the plastic recycling industry.
  • Recycled plastic bags are used to make new plastic bags and building products such as backyard decks, playground equipment and fences.
  • As a result of recycling innovation and investment, the United States is the world leader in plastic bag and film recycling. Taxes and bans endanger this growing green industry and threaten jobs.

A study on the life cycle of three types of disposable bags (single-use plastic, paper, and compostable plastic) showed that both compostable plastic and paper bags require more material per bag in the manufacturing process. This means “higher consumption of raw materials in the manufacture of the bags…[and] greater energy in bag manufacturing and greater fuel use in the transport of the finished product. The added requirements of manufacturing energy and transport for the compostable and paper bag systems far exceed the raw material use in the standard plastic bag system.” (Source: Boustead Consulting & Associates report)

Are taxes on plastic bags the answer?
Four years ago, the District of Columbia imposed a tax on single-use disposable bags. According to supporters of the bill, the District’s four-year-old tax on disposable bags has been a rousing success, leading to a 60 percent drop in household bag use and many fewer plastic bags littering city streets. Such are the claims of city environmental officials, citing surveys done by an independent research firm last year.

City revenue figures, meanwhile, show no continuing decrease in the use of disposable bags. In fact, bag tax collections have proven remarkably stable since the nickelper- bag fee debuted in January 2010.

The tax has generated $150,000 to $200,000 a month for the District’s river cleanup efforts, but the steady collections throw into doubt claims that the tax has overwhelmingly succeeded in pushing down bag use over time, as backers had predicted.

Washington D.C.’s experience notwithstanding, there is strong evidence that bag taxes do reduce bag use. A September 2013 dissertation from a Princeton University graduate student, recently highlighted by the Brookings Institution, studied bag habits in the District and Montgomery County, concluding that the five-cent tax was very effective in curbing disposable-bag use. (A five-cent credit for using reusable bags, on the other hand, was not.)

A neutral voice in the debate
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is perhaps one of the few relatively neutral voices in the discussion about one of the main reasons given in support of a plastic bag ban: marine waste. NOAA is the primary federal U.S. agency focused on monitoring the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. Here’s what they have to say on the subject:

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Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Why is plastic marine debris so common?
Plastics are used in many aspects of daily life, are a big part of our waste stream and can last a long time. Many plastics are colorful and will float in water, which makes plastic debris a very visible part of the marine debris problem. However, an accurate estimate does not yet exist for how much marine debris is composed of plastic materials.

Do plastics “go away”? Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore (so small you’d need a microscope or better). Because the ocean is a cold, dark place, this process happens more slowly in water than on land. Full degradation into carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic molecules is called mineralization. Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces “microplastics” if they are less than 5mm long. Bio-based and truly biodegradable plastics break down in a compost pile or landfill, but are generally not designed to degrade as quickly in the ocean.

Can plastic marine debris harm fish?
Plastic has the potential to harm fish and other wildlife in two main ways.

  • Direct Impacts: Studies have shown that fish and other marine life do eat plastic. Plastics could cause irritation or damage to the digestive system. If plastics are kept in the gut instead of passing through, the fish could feel full (of plastic, not food) and this could lead to malnutrition or starvation.
  • Indirect Impacts: Plastic debris accumulates pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater. PCBs, which were mainly used as coolant fluids, were banned in the U.S. in 1979 and internationally in 2001. It is still unclear whether these pollutants can seep from plastic debris into the organisms that happen to eat the debris and very difficult to determine the exact source of these pollutants as they can come from sources other than plastic debris. More research is needed to help better understand these areas.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

There is no “garbage patch,” a name that conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer: “While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.”

She’s not downplaying the significance of microplastics. They are nearly ubiquitous today—degrading into tiny bits from a range of larger plastic items and now turning up in everything from face scrubs to fleece jackets—and their impacts on marine life mostly remain a big unknown.

There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed and other sea life. You can find out more about these “convergence zones” in the ocean in a NOAA study of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone.

Any way you look at these “peppery soups” of plastic in the Pacific, none of the debris should be there. The NOAA Marine Debris website and blog have lots of great information and references if you want to learn more about the garbage patch issue.

What can you do?

  • Get involved! Participate in local cleanups in your area.
  • Remember that the land and sea, no matter where you are, are connected.
  • Reduce the amount of waste you produce.
  • Reuse items whenever possible. Choose reusable items over disposable ones.
  • Recycle as much as possible, personally and professionally.

Both sides have valid points.
Despite efforts to ban plastic bags entirely, there is no simple right solution to the problem. But one thing is certain…it’s a big deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion. (Worldwide, it is estimated that over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year, which–if accurate–represents almost 2 million bags used every minute!).

Yet, replacing plastic bags with reusable bags or paper (even at a nominal charge for their use) isn’t necessarily the complete answer either. Both reusable bags and paper bags consume significantly more resources and actually create more greenhouse gasses than plastic bags–which, in theory if not in practice, are 100% recyclable. While eliminating plastic bags completely would likely impact at least 30,000 jobs in the U.S., some of those bags inevitable wind up in our lakes, streams and oceans, causing distress for wildlife.

Yet claims of some great trash heap in the oceans that could readily be addressed are not accurate. That said, legislation against plastic bags cannot, in and of itself, keep our oceans clean. The real solution to protecting our environment from litter is encouraging recycling and developing a cultural shift away from our use-and-toss culture.

In short, there are no inherently sustainable or unsustainable materials. Though certain materials are easier than others to manage (financially and technically), the important distinction to make is the one between sustainable and unsustainable management of materials, such as plastic bags.

So, the question remains: “Paper or Plastic?” As an investment recovery professional, what do you think?

Sources: American Progressive Bag Alliance, Boustead Consulting & Associates, Brookings Institution, Los Angeles Times, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration–U.S. Department of Commerce, San Jose Mercury-News, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Post