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Plastic Bags May Sue You
January 15, 2009 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Plastic bags are bad for the environment, right? Not according to the Plastic Bag Coalition, which created savetheplasticbag.com in order to help stop the demonization of the supermarket staple. Taking a firm stance, they have recently threatened to sue the city of Santa Monica for passing an ordnance banning plastic bags. This isn't the first time they've sued.

Previously.

A link to the audio transcript of a debate over plastic bags' impact on the environment, care of the NPR station KCRW.
posted by jabberjaw (52 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Unsurprising. As late as the mid-1980's, there were signs in Oklahoma grocery stores that said (paraphrasing from memory), "Support our petroleum-based economy - use plastic bags!"
posted by yhbc at 12:21 PM on January 15, 2009


My favorite so far, from the website's FAQ:

We believe that decision-makers such as those that adopted the San Francisco ordinance are not asking questions or fact-checking. They read a statement on a website and assume that it must be true just because it is repeated hundreds of times on the Internet.
posted by theroadahead at 12:23 PM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


... for passing an ordnance banning plastic bags.

Santa Monica really brought out the big guns, eh?

There's a plastic bag fee in the works for Seattle. Bring it on, PBC.
posted by gurple at 12:24 PM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


As of Jan 12th, Loblaws in the Toronto area will charge 5 cents for all plastic bags I'm pretty sure the province and/or the city wanted to ban them but this was the compromise reached with the grocer's retail association.
posted by GuyZero at 12:27 PM on January 15, 2009


According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, plastic bags (including retail bags) use up only 0.4% of landfill space.

That's funny. It's one of those numbers that they chose because they thought it would seem small, but it actually seems holy-shit big to me. Nearly half a percent of all landfill space is filled with plastic bags, which take up an infinitesimal amount of space per unit? That means some scary numbers.
posted by gurple at 12:28 PM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, this one is also terrific:

Most reusable bags are made in China, including those sold by Trader Joe's, Safeway and Whole Foods.

Fancy groceries == reusable bags == YELLOW MENACE
posted by GuyZero at 12:30 PM on January 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


It is good to have a passion. What causes this passion, its motivation, is as varied from person to person as the strands of their DNA.

For some, that passion is nature, and these people will seek out the calming influence of a forest brook or a crashing tide to find peace. For some it is literature or art, where the works of others can inspire one to seek enlightenment and knowledge or explore the hidden depths of their soul. For some, passion is found in a lover, and for these people their own happiness is only achievable through the happiness of their mate.

And for some, it is plastic bags. Some people really like plastic bags.
posted by gordie at 12:31 PM on January 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Loblaws in the Toronto area will charge 5 cents for all plastic bags

Good but not good enough; 5 cents is nothing to a lot of people. It has to be more like 50 cents or a dollar for a nice reusable bag.
posted by pracowity at 12:32 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why focus on plastic bags rather than plastic in general? Is plastic worse in grocery-bag form?
posted by bluejayk at 12:34 PM on January 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, plastic bags (including retail bags) use up only 0.4% of landfill space.

I'm more concerned about the plastic bags that don't make it to the landfills. Take a road trip along I-5 in California or out along I-40 or I-10 to Arizona and you'll see downwind of every truck stop joshua trees and other awesome desert plants choked by these things, mostly cut off from the sun by thousands of Taco Bell bags that have blown away from the parking lots out into the desert. Depresses the hell out of me.
posted by doteatop at 12:37 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why focus on plastic bags rather than plastic in general? Is plastic worse in grocery-bag form?
posted by bluejayk at 2:34 PM on January 15 [+] [!]


It's a made-to-be-tossed item that has high rates of consumption. Yeah, it's pretty bad.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:41 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Industry tradegroup Claims their product is actually a blessing to life. Next on Action News.

Seriously...put this right next to the The Corn Refiners Association's campaign for HFCS in terms of institutional self-deception.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:50 PM on January 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


I made a similar comment in another plastic bag thread: if these things last for thousands of years in landfills, can't we use that to our advantage? Make army tanks out of them or use the bags to wrap up nuclear waste before we dump it into the ocean.
posted by marxchivist at 12:55 PM on January 15, 2009


But, but but plastic grocery bags are useful. Useful for using as garbage bags, and for putting stuff in like sandwiches and lettuce and leftovers. Sometimes you do end up with too many of them, but still, I just can't imagine a world without plastic garbage bags.

(btw South Africa has been very successful at cutting down the use of such bags, which especially used to blight the landscape around towns - snagging and fluttering in the thorn trees and barbed wire - by charging 20 cents per bag. To many people there 20 cents (which has the value of about a nickel) is a lot of money, and so folks took to using reusable bags quite readily)
posted by Flashman at 12:59 PM on January 15, 2009


Wouldn't a 25 cent deposit solve this problem?
posted by electroboy at 1:01 PM on January 15, 2009


bluejayk, they cause enormous litter problems. Birds, animals, and fish eat them, and get sick/die. Or are strangled when they're snagged in them. Especially in the ocean, where there's apparently a huge floating continent-sized swarm of the things.

They are both too fragile to be any use for long, and nearly impossible to destroy completely. Compared to your average recyclable coke bottle, yeah: evil.
posted by emjaybee at 1:02 PM on January 15, 2009


Yeah, this is a "reduce consumption of stupid shit including bags" issue, not "paper bags are better than plastic bags" issue.

I'm more in favor of small nickel-and-dime surcharges than unnecessary and arbitrary bans.
posted by meowzilla at 1:03 PM on January 15, 2009


What is a dog owner to do?
posted by caddis at 1:05 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I made a similar comment in another plastic bag thread: if these things last for thousands of years in landfills, can't we use that to our advantage? Make army tanks out of them or use the bags to wrap up nuclear waste before we dump it into the ocean.

I can't tell if you're being serious or not. The longevity problem is not that you'll still have a recognizable plastic bag 10,000 years from now, but that you'll have three trillion molecules 10,000 years from now all from that one plastic bag, each of which is impossible for anything in our ecosystem to reduce any further.

Think about the impact of this. Before vulcanization and plastic polymers pretty much anything you made, no matter what the components, would eventually be recycled by the environment. It would be broken down naturally over time. This is not the case with plastics.
posted by odinsdream at 1:06 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


First I was corrected by the National High Fructose Corn Syrup foundation that their shit wasn't bad for you, now Savetheplasticbag.com is correcting me by informing me that plastic bags are just fine too.
Next up: Huffing glue- Not nearly as bad as you heard!
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:19 PM on January 15, 2009


Yeah, when I read about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—a trash island twice the size of Texas—that was my slap in the face. I can't say that I've eliminated plastic bags in my home, but I've cut way down on their use. These plastic-bag advocates should address that problem if they want any credibility.

Also, from their website: "As a result of misinformation, many people believe that it is a disadvantage that plastic bags do not decompose in landfills. NOT TRUE. Decomposing paper in landfills produces methane which is a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat trapping power of CO2." You see what they did there? False dilemma.
posted by adamrice at 1:20 PM on January 15, 2009


The SFWeekly has a good article about San Francisco's plastic bag ban. If it's tldr, basically the point is that paper bags are probably less efficient than plastic and that San Francisco is just pandering to the appearance of eco-friendliness with its ban.
posted by Nelson at 1:22 PM on January 15, 2009


Why focus on plastic bags rather than plastic in general? Is plastic worse in grocery-bag form?

This bears repeating and further investigation. I'm no huge fan of plastic bags, but there are bins for them at the recycling depots in my city. I find that (at least by volume) it's all the other superfluous packaging that overflows my garbage can: polystyrene trays for everything from chicken to limes, takeout containers, yogurt tubs, cleaning-product bottles, etc. Almost all of this stuff is theoretically recyclable, but not here.

I wonder, in any case, whether the bags aren't the lowest hanging fruit - hardest to defend and easiest to switch, since only consumers, not producers, need to change their behaviour. See, for example, the contentious and seemingly faltering effort in Toronto to ban disposable Tim Horton's coffee cups. Just imagine what kind of fight Procter & Gamble would mount if you tried to ban nonbiodegradable packaging from the cleaning-product aisle.

I tried to find stats breaking down the share of landfill waste generated by bags vs. other packaging but could only find a general stat for the UK in which "packaging" (including bags) is the largest share of plastic consumed by a wide margin. Anyone else know better?

And on preview, emjaybee, your link about the swarm - which you've characterized as primarily a plastic bag mess, and which the article itself uses as the prime example of the problem - is kind of a case in point. A friend of mine spent a week trolling for plastic in the North Pacific gyre and made a very good short film about it, and his reporting in no way indicated that plastic bags were a uniquely large part of the problem. Exfoliating plastic beads in countless hair and body care products are at least as big a problem - but as long as they come home from the store wrapped in canvas, they're not drawing much in the way of calls for a ban.
posted by gompa at 1:23 PM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Think about the impact of this. Before vulcanization and plastic polymers pretty much anything you made, no matter what the components, would eventually be recycled by the environment.

What? Tons of inorganic man-made stuff lasts a long time and isn't naturally recycled, not just plastic. An ecosystem finds glass, gold, and various other materials as useless as plastic.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:28 PM on January 15, 2009


No, the real menace are those plastic bag trees that seem to be sprouting up in cities across the country. Unlike nearly all other fruit-bearing trees, these guys sprout bags year-round, usually in groups of two, although multiple sproutings are not uncommon. I realize they pose a conundrum for those granola-breathed hippies, but the problem is widespread enough to deserve scientific attention.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:29 PM on January 15, 2009


"An ecosystem finds glass, gold, and various other materials as useless as plastic."

Obviously plastic is a hell of a lot uglier than all those other things.
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:35 PM on January 15, 2009


"An ecosystem finds glass, gold, and various other materials as useless as plastic."

Those items are, on the whole, a lot less poisonous than plastic bags, which, when baked in the Sun's ultraviolet light release a melange of heavy metals (e.g., cadmium) and toxic chemical byproducts of plastic combustion.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:56 PM on January 15, 2009


Treebag harvesting.
posted by steef at 1:57 PM on January 15, 2009


What? Tons of inorganic man-made stuff lasts a long time and isn't naturally recycled, not just plastic. An ecosystem finds glass, gold, and various other materials as useless as plastic.

In general, birds and animals don't eat these things in large amounts and get sickened.

Of course, the organic/inorganic division is not useful; man-made plastics are still made from pre-existing "natural" elements, just manipulated in a way that makes them uniquely damaging and hard to clean up. Matter is matter. Given enough millennia, plastic would be subducted with all other materials and melted in the earth's mantle, and that would finally recycle it.

In the meantime, we would do well not to choke ourselves on the stuff, whatever form it comes in--bath beads or bags or those )*^(^)*& clamshell packages of death.
posted by emjaybee at 2:06 PM on January 15, 2009


Those items are, on the whole, a lot less poisonous than plastic bags, which, when baked in the Sun's ultraviolet light release a melange of heavy metals (e.g., cadmium) and toxic chemical byproducts of plastic combustion.

Yes, I agree. I'm not promoting the use of and disposal of plastic bags, or equating plastic with glass or gold on any level other than lack of biodegradability. I was just pointing out that plastic is by no means the only material that people have produced that is useless to the environment, which is what odinsdream's comment seemed to suggest. We've been screwing up the environment for a signicantly longer time than we've been producing plastic.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:14 PM on January 15, 2009


I'm pretty sure the North Pacific Gyre is the first time I heard the word outside of that Yeats poem.
posted by box at 2:51 PM on January 15, 2009


In Germany, they don't have plastic bags at the supermarket; you just have the option to buy a 50 cent reusable bag at the register. It makes me happy.

What also makes me happy is that you can separate compost from your household garbage here. But here's the problem: I need a plastic bag to carry out my leaky, spill-prone compost. I get them every time I go to the outdoor market, but it makes me feel like a jerk every time I use them for garbage.

Anyone know if there's a biodegradable alternative? Paper bags won't stop the leaks, and I can't scrape out an sanitize a bucket every single time I take out the compost.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:19 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Plastic bags are just the latest icon of evil. I agree they're bad, but they've been turned into the primary cause of landfill woes and environmental blight, just like HFCS and SUVs have become the focus of the fights against obesity and climate change.
All of these things are moderately bad, but we've greatly exaggerated their specific contributions.
I've seen many people putting overpackaged, individually-wrapped single-serving convenience foods into their reusable cloth bags and walking off like they just saved the world.
posted by rocket88 at 3:38 PM on January 15, 2009


Bunch up a plastic bag as small as you can. You can probably, with a little ingenuity, get it down to about the size of a cigarette filter.

Now consider that size and think of all of the bags that get used. Compare it to the number of cigarettes smoked.

Now consider that most of us either throw our plastic bags away or recycle them responsibly. What about smokers? They either flick their butts anywhere they want or throw these little toxic chunks of plastic in the garbage.

While I applaud the concept of getting rid of plastic bags, it's a tiny (in volume/mass) part of the waste problem and the less thought of problems are being ignored.

This is yet another case of the visible problem getting much more attention than the much more serious ignored or hidden problem.
posted by Kickstart70 at 4:33 PM on January 15, 2009


This is yet another case of the visible problem getting much more attention than the much more serious ignored or hidden problem.

Apart from the fact that cigarette filters are made from paper and treated cellulose - both biodegradable* - plastic bags are certainly pollutants. Trying to convince people to stop using them doesn't exclude other environmental measures.

* It does takes up to 10 years for cigarette filters to biodegrade which, while certainly not good, is a fraction of the time a plastic bag will spend intact.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:38 PM on January 15, 2009


Good but not good enough; 5 cents is nothing to a lot of people. It has to be more like 50 cents or a dollar for a nice reusable bag.

Well, the Queens Quay market was offering the large-size, reusable bags just this week for 0.75 each. According to their plastic bag reductiony press release, all the Toronto stores are offering reusable bags on sale for 50% off until Jan 18th, and a coupon for a free green box with a $25 purchase (although I can't find this mythical coupon on any Loblaw site, and I'm miffed to have missed out on free grocery-carrying swag).
posted by grippycat at 4:42 PM on January 15, 2009


If you actually remember to bring the reusable bags into the store from your car they are far, far nicer than the traditional paper or plastic crap.
posted by caddis at 4:54 PM on January 15, 2009


foxy_hedgehog: "Anyone know if there's a biodegradable alternative?"

BioBags.
posted by team lowkey at 5:05 PM on January 15, 2009


foxy_hedgehog: "Anyone know if there's a biodegradable alternative? Paper bags won't stop the leaks, and I can't scrape out an sanitize a bucket every single time I take out the compost."

Yes, I use BioBag (FoodWaste 10L), made from corn. Just toss the bag in with the compost, it disintegrates.
posted by stbalbach at 5:12 PM on January 15, 2009


oh wow sorry team lowkey, should have previewed!
posted by stbalbach at 5:12 PM on January 15, 2009


I was just pointing out that plastic is by no means the only material that people have produced that is useless to the environment, which is what odinsdream's comment seemed to suggest.

I wasn't suggesting it's useless. I was pointing out that it's different than other things we've made before because breaking down a piece of iron, gold or glass into smaller and smaller pieces just gets you smaller pieces. Breaking plastic up into smaller and smaller pieces gets you toxic chemicals.
posted by odinsdream at 6:02 PM on January 15, 2009


We pay 20 cents (Euro Cents) a Bag. We've cut down drastically on how many we use.

We tend to use cloth bags for everything, but get a few every week or so to use for trash bags.

Ditch the nasty plastic bags, charge a fee for paper and plastic, sell cheap reusables.

It's not a difficult situation to resolve properly, but mix in the pr fuckery and it's a tough sell.
posted by Lord_Pall at 9:15 PM on January 15, 2009


Ah, the blessing of the Green Bag! Their uses are manifold, their horrible green sacking versatile and delightful! They are like a milk-crate - capacious, supremely portable and a now valuable addition to any sharehouse. Like wire hangers and odd socks, they have their own magical breeding cycle, whereby you put two in a cupboard, and once the summer has passed you have twenty, and you rejoice!

They are an excellent library bag, sturdy enough for all the volumes of Sandman and my specfic I am returning to the library today! They are the laudry hampers of derros, filing cabinets for postgrads and cable bags for LANfans. Red ones held my christmas gifts, black and purple ones sort my stockings into colors before I wash them. My cat had babies in one. They are an excellent packing device when moving house. They are interchangable, so you can take a stack of gaming supplements to a friends and leave the whole package, safe in the knowledge that a similar bag (if not the same) will return to you next session, laden with chips. Likewise, you can fit a dozen bottles of cider in them, and if you leave it at the party no big deal. My new year's party netted us about another four.

Shopping with them is only the tip of the iceberg. Leave some in the boot of the car, or next to your front door. I am still finding new uses for this year's litter.

Fear me, for I love my green bags.
posted by Jilder at 10:06 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


South Australia is phasing them out over the next few months.

I love my green bags - as Jilder says, they do so much and they're so interchangeable. I also carry a reuseable bag that rolls up into it's own little packet that I can keep in my handbag, in case it's needed.

savetheplasticbag.com can kiss my arse. Sure, there are worse things for the environment. But plastic bags aren't necessary, and they're bloody hard to get rid of once you've made them. It's too easy to get rid of them *not* to do it.
posted by harriet vane at 12:20 AM on January 16, 2009


I use reusable bags now. I came for the recycling but I stayed for the capacity. A typical shopping trip has me carrying in 10 reusable bags but that would be more like 30 plastic bags because they are so tiny and weak and they hurt your hands if they have any weight in them.
posted by DU at 5:20 AM on January 16, 2009


Who here does not use plastic bags to dispose of their trash? How about plastic wrap, sandwich bags etc. as these are much easier to do without, but I bet most people don't? Does your dry cleaning come in a plastic bag? How about purchases from the record store (oh, wait nobody actually buys music anymore) or other miscellaneous establishments? Do you always bring in your own bag? They love that at places like Circuit City etc. ;) Ever ship stuff overnight in a Tyvek pouch? Where in all this piles of plastic do a dozen grocery bags stand? I am not really sure of the answer to that question. I am just wondering.
posted by caddis at 7:47 AM on January 16, 2009


Yeah, when I read about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—a trash island twice the size of Texas—that was my slap in the face. I can't say that I've eliminated plastic bags in my home, but I've cut way down on their use. These plastic-bag advocates should address that problem if they want any credibility.

This was my "on the one hand." I read about this in The World Without Us, and the...futility of it just kept bringing me up short. Any time I found myself wondering why no one ever tried a project to clear it up, round up all the guck in this trash island and get it out of the sea, I would always then think, "wait, but once you pick it up, where do you put it? Can't bury it...can't burn it...can't melt it down...damn."

But on the other hand: I am a cat owner, and so I haven't entirely shunned plastic bags yet -- they are, in essence, how I flush my cat's toilet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2009


you'll have three trillion molecules 10,000 years from now all from that one plastic bag, each of which is impossible for anything in our ecosystem to reduce any further

I am certain that in far less than 10k years a bacterial lifeform will have evolved that digests plastic molecules. Whenever there's opportunity for life to consume high-energy organic molecules, it does.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:36 PM on January 16, 2009


the contentious and seemingly faltering effort in Toronto to ban disposable Tim Horton's coffee cups

Tim Hortons has at least revamped the trash-can signs in its Toronto locations so that they ask you to remove the lid and put the lid and cup in the appropriate sections of the trash cans. However, it's pretty clear if you look into the bins before you throw your trash out that either next to nobody actually cares about sorting their garbage properly or they're too just stupid to sort it.
posted by oaf at 7:50 PM on January 16, 2009


Why focus on plastic bags rather than plastic in general? Is plastic worse in grocery-bag form?

1. They are free, which makes them much more plentiful than they need to be. You buy a couple of small things that you need to run out to the car and the clerk puts these things into a free bag, so people take them. But then, because they are free and unnecessary, people toss them aside at no personal loss. If the clerk said, "Do you want to buy a bag for 25 cents?" most people would suddenly realize they don't need a bag to carry a newspaper and a pack of gum. The number of bags would go way down.

2. Because of their construction -- lightweight, windsock shape, relatively large size, and two large loops -- plastic shopping bags are much more likely to fly up and be caught in trees, making them a much worse trash nuisance than candy wrappers and other plastic litter. Long after the gum wrappers and cigarette butts have been swept up, the plastic bag they came in is still rustling in the trees. We have had a plastic bag in the tree outside our window for about a year now.

3. They are superfluous. You might argue that you need the plastic wrapper around your messy lump of food, but can you say that you need the plastic bag around the plastic wrapper around your messy lump of food? You might need a bag to carry your shopping, but you do not need a disposable plastic shopping bag. If you need a disposable waterproof bag for something in particular other than shopping (such as picking up dog shit), buy bags for that purpose and make sure they're biodegradable.

I have heard of other problems with plastic bags, such as that they often choke or entangle sea life. I don't know much about things like that, but the above points are true and obvious enough.
posted by pracowity at 9:01 AM on January 17, 2009


Caddis, I not only use the reusable green bags for my groceries, but I also have an Envirosax bag that rolls up into a little pouch to fit in my handbag for when I go to miscellaneous establishments. I've cut way back on my use of plastic wrap - it's usually not necessary, and some Tupperware with a lid will do the trick for the times that you really need to cover food. I'm about to buy a Wrap-n-go reusable sandwich wrap for my work lunches. I'm use biodegradable plastic bin bags (and since I also compost most of my food scraps, there's nothing really sloppy in my bin that needs super-strength plastic bags).

Interestingly, the Tupperware, and the green bags, and the Envirosax, etc etc are all still plastic products. But they take advantage of plastic's durability so that I'm gradually removing all the *disposable* plastic from my life. I don't know the exact numbers, but it hasn't been hard to do this, and to me it seems worthwhile to get rid of a huge source of pointless rubbish that hangs around forever and hurts wildlife.
posted by harriet vane at 12:33 AM on January 18, 2009


Damn, I forgot another thing I wanted to mention: plastic is made from oil. If the peak-oil-ers are right, it'd be a good idea to stop using it for frivolous jobs when we're going to need it for more important stuff like driving ambulances and school buses and whatever.
posted by harriet vane at 12:36 AM on January 18, 2009


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