Studies show that banning plastic bags doesn’t have the desired outcome, but is anyone listening?

With more plastic bag bans set to take effect in 2020, there is concern among the member companies of the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA; Arlington, VA) that outright bans will result in unintended consequences. PlasticsToday interviewed Matt Seaholm, Executive Director of the APBA, about the organization’s efforts to stop these bans and provide scientific information to lawmakers. 

Plastic bag ban“One of the things that stand out when I read [Clare Goldsberry's] blogs in PlasticsToday is the emphasis on the unintended consequences created by banning plastics,” said Seaholm. “I try to talk about this when I meet with people about the benefits of plastic bags, because these have been target number one for environmental groups that want to get rid of single-use plastics.”

Calling plastic retail bags “single use” really “misses the mark,” said Seaholm, adding that anti-plastics people denigrate the bag as single use and flimsy. “But that’s one of the great things about them—they are lightweight and durable." Of course, being lightweight allows the wind to blow the bags around if people don’t take care to put them where they can be recycled. Plastic bags also use a smaller amount of material and fewer resources and energy to make and transport than alternative materials. 

Seaholm cited one life-cycle analysis commissioned by the government of Québec that showed 77% of plastic retail bags are reused as trash can liners and for pet waste and dirty diapers. With bans on plastic retail bags, one of the unintended consequences is that more new plastic bags are being purchased for those purposes. If the goal of plastic bag bans is to reduce the amount of virgin material used to make new retail bags, that goal has failed. 

Not only that, the analysis found that “no replacement option has an environmental advantage in the event of a ban on plastic shopping bags.

“It’s not as simple as ‘well, we’ll get rid of these retail bags, and bag waste will go away,’” said Seaholm. “There are better ways than outright banning to solve the plastic waste problem.”

Seaholm believes that lawmakers need to pause and ask themselves what problem they’re trying to solve. What is the concern? Is it litter? Seaholm cites studies that show grocery bags make up 1% of bag litter. “If it’s litter and the approach is to reduce litter, then bans are not effective,” he said. “As an industry we encourage sustainable use of the product. We know the vast majority of the bags out in the environment come from convenience shopping where a person got one item, left the store and took the item out and threw the bag into the environment. That’s not a sustainable use of our product. But that fact often gets drowned out by the voices crying for banning or taxing.” 

Seaholm noted that the last report shows that plastics bags represent 0.3% of the waste stream and “that covers every plastic bag or sack that goes into a landfill—all bags,” he emphasized. “The idea that the landfill is being filled with bags is ludicrous.”

PlasticsToday asked Seaholm about the industry’s responsibility for plastics in the environment.  “I don’t think our member companies get the credit they deserve for all they’ve done to help mitigate the problem,” Seaholm said. “They’ve invested in the infrastructure to help recycle the bags with in-store take-back systems to create a circular economy to recycle the plastic bags instead of sending a bunch of plastic bags to the landfill.  

“Thirteen percent of these retail bags get collected in bins at the store, and over 90% of plastic grocery bags are reused or recycled. That’s because the primary use is reuse for trash-can liners. Our responsibility is to provide end-of-life solutions and, as bag manufacturers, we do that.” 

Consumer education is also one of the goals of the APBA. The organization helps its partners do that through various programs, such as running collection contests for bags at schools to help kids understand they are recyclable. “They’ll talk to their parents about this fact and now the parents know,” he said. “It’s another part of what we’re doing to be responsible manufacturers. We believe these plastic bags to be a sustainable product.”  

Seaholm also speaks with lawmakers at various levels in state and local governments, emphasizing the unintended consequences of bag bans. “There are a  number of statewide bag ban bills this year, but I highlight to legislators the fact that all types of polyethylene film goes through the retail stores, and retailers are willing to do the collection of bread bags, dry cleaner bags, HDPE Amazon pouches and more,” he explained. “This has resulted in a concern we have and that is if the retailers don’t supply any type of plastic bag, why would they put recycle bins in their stores? The unintended consequence of this is they would actually contribute to eliminating the recycling infrastructure for film for companies that use this recyclate in their end products, such as wood plastic composite (WPC) manufacturers. It’s not fair to retailers to require collection if they don’t provide the bags to the customers in the first place. 

“Obviously, retailers are our members’ customers and they work at the local level all the time. More public relations is an aspirational goal that may be lacking in details. We’ll continue to work with retailers to provide more science and education,” he added.

Seaholm is interested to see what 2020 brings, when some of these plastic bag ban policies will go into effect. “New York is a good example, as its law is written in such a way that it bans all plastic bags, including polyester, non-woven polypropylene, woven polypropylene, polyethylene, nylon and PET. This fever pitch has a lot of emotion behind these policies that is frustrating,” said Seaholm.

“I think we’ll see buyer’s remorse in a lot of these cases. Connecticut is already seeing that. A tax doesn’t have the desired effect on the environment, so people use paper, which takes more resources and energy to manufacture and transport. That’s where all these ‘feel-good efforts’ go into these policies. Lawmakers pass it one day and the next day there’s no impact on the environment, but they can pat each other on the back for having passed it. Banning plastic bags won’t be as much of a slam-dunk as people think.”

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