Plastic bag bans, bonus content

By: 
February 10, 2013


Last week, PlasticsToday published a five-part comprehensive report on plastic shopping bag bans. I encourage you to read the report in its entirely on our site (slightly shameless self-promotional plug there). 

However, to give you a Cliffs Notes version, we looked at plastic shopping bags throughout the supply chain, which included their inception, potential impact on the environment with a focus on marine life, an in-depth look at the economic effect of bag bans and taxes, end-of-life management and plastic bag alternatives.

In addition, part of the series focused on my tour of Hilex Poly, one of the biggest manufacturers of plastic bag film products and the operator of the largest closed-loop plastic recycling facility in the world.

Plenty of time, seemingly countless interviews and much research when into the report and I want to take a moment to thank all the sources who talked with me and allowed me to use their opinions and research as part of the story. A big thanks to Hilex for letting me see the company's plastic bag recycling facility up close and personal. I might have to create an online photo essay to showcase all the photos I took during the tour.

It looks like the topic of plastic shopping bag bans is not going away anytime soon as it seems every day there is an announcement of another proposed ban or tax. If you have any thoughts or have something you would like to add to our conversation, please feel free to comment here and/or send me an email.

While I tried to the best of my ability to cover all the bases, there was still some content that was left out that I wanted to briefly cover here.

Bag bans making people sick?

PlasticsToday star reporter Clare Goldsberry recently wrote an article titled, "Plastic bag bans are bad for you health." In that piece, she looks into an article where evidence was presented that plastic bag bans, more specifically reusable bags that become contaminated, are in fact bad for your health.

The authors of a paper examined emergency room admissions records related to bacterial intestinal infections, especially those related to E. coli in the wake of San Francisco's 2007 countywide ban on plastic bags in large grocery stores and drug stores. That ban was extended to all retail establishments in early 2012. They found that emergency room visits spiked after the San Francisco plastic bag ban went into effect.

"We find that the San Francisco City ban is associated with a 46% increase in deaths from food borne illnesses," the authors wrote. This implies an increase of 5.5 deaths annually for the county, which the authors note is statistically significant, Clare wrote. "Bag bans in San Francisco resulted conservatively in 5.4 annual additional deaths."

I spoke with Brad Nihls, VP of operations for Reuseit.com, a company that sells reusable products, prior to when that study was made public and he had talked about the potential contamination issue with reusable bags. He said his company hasn't come across contamination complaints related to its products.

"We've never had a report of any kind of health issue or sanitation issue," he said. "I think it comes down to you clean your house, you do your laundry, and well you also need to make sure you clean your bags. Still, it is a wise thing to educate people when they are new to this and make sure they are conscious of sanitation and hygiene, such as if you go to a meat market and it leaks into the bag, make sure you thoroughly clean it afterward."

Solid-colored shopping bags may contain lead

In December 2012, the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse (TPCH) released a study that claimed solid-colored shopping bags are at risk for containing high concentrations of lead in violation of state laws. The association screened 125 single-use shopping and mailing bags for the presence of lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium in the inks used to print or color the bags. These toxic metals are regulated in packaging by 19 U.S. states.

Only three bags failed the screening test for lead, however, each of the failing samples contained about 1% lead by weight of the bag. The shopping bags that contained lead were all solid-colored plastic bags - two were bright yellow and one red. Only one of the bags was marked with the country of origin, and in that case it was manufactured in the U.S., TPCH stated.

Still TPCH said that, overall, states were pleased with the high level of compliance with state toxics in packaging laws. An earlier screening project by the TPCH, released in 2007, showed almost 17% non-compliance for plastic shopping bags of a total of 60 samples screened. TPCH included some retail brand shopping bags that failed in the 2007 project in the current screening and the results on these new bags indicated they were in compliance.

Lead and cadmium are sometimes added to pigments used in colorants that make single-use shopping bags colorful or to flexible PVC packaging as an inexpensive plasticizer and UV stabilizer. Although these substances may pose little direct risk to the average consumer handling the packaging, TPCH said when the packaging material is disposed of in landfills or incinerators, these toxic metals can enter the environment and pose a risk to health and safety.

TPCH Program Director Patricia Dillion said the clearinghouse doesn't believe the general public is aware of potential lead content in shopping bags. She said state toxic-in-packaging laws are first and foremost environmental laws, designed to keep toxic metals out of solid waste and recycling streams. Waste reduction, which would include plastic bag bans, is the first priority in state solid waste management hierarchy.

After retailers and businesses determine if plastic bags are needed, the constituents of the bag must be in compliance with state toxics in packaging laws, which prohibit the intentional use of any amount of lead.

"In states without toxics in packaging laws, recyclability of the bag should be an important consideration," she said. "Film plastics, including plastic bags, make up a measurable portion of the waste stream but in more and more locations they are being collected for recycling. If plastic bags are contaminated by lead or other toxic materials then their ability to serve as a clean raw material for future products is impaired. "

TPCH's recommendation to the bag manufacturers to help resolve the lead issue include the following:

  • Specify that inks and colorants do not contain lead or the other three heavy metals (cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium) restricted by state packaging laws.
  • Require ink and colorant suppliers to provide a Certificate of Compliance that they meet this requirement with supporting documentation (basis for the certification such as analytical test results).
  • Verify through their own or independent testing that the inks and colorants they actually receive from their suppliers do not contain lead or the other restricted metals.

She emphasized that it is not sufficient to just specify lead-free inks and colorants and also rely on supplier certifications, but independent testing is a prudent quality assurance step.

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