True confessions: A plastics engineer reflects on the plastic bag ban

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for PlasticsToday discussing the efforts to ban plastic bags. Ironically, the article was published the week after the November 2016 elections when California voters approved Proposition 67, which prohibited grocery stores from giving away single-use bags for free. It also created new standards for reusable bags, and allowed grocery stores to sell reusable bags at a minimum price of $0.10 per bag.      

Plastic bag opponents 

Most of the arguments for banning plastic bags involved environmental issues. Opponents claim that they don’t decompose easily (I agree) and often end up in our oceans, lakes and rivers (I agree with the consequences, but not with the reasons why this happens). The opponents had a well-organized marketing campaign, backed by substantial research and case histories. 

Plastic bag proponents 

Most of the arguments to retain plastic bags came from the plastics industry. The main argument was that the manufacturing of plastics bags was more environmentally friendly, and that banning plastic bags would have a negative economic impact. In other words, some people would lose their jobs. In my opinion, that was a lousy argument. Doing something stupid just because it saves jobs is never a good idea. 

We know that working in a coal mine is a dangerous job, one of the most dangerous occupations in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The mining industry has one of the highest worker fatality rates,and coal miners frequently suffer adverse health effects including hearing loss and chronic lung diseases. We also know that burning coal contributes to acid rain, which not only affects human health, but also increases the corrosion rate of our already crumbling infrastructure. Can you imagine the push back if a lobbying group came up with the following marketing strategy: We are going to promote burning coal because it saves coal miners' jobs.

Proponents also argued that California already had an established infrastructure for recycling plastic bags. However, after some research, I was stunned to learn that the recycling rate was around 3%.2 In other words, 97% of plastic bags are used once and thrown away. I was also unable to find any data on the percentage of recycled material that was used in a typical plastic bag (I suspect it is close to 0%). As a comparison, a typical aluminum beverage can contains 70% recycled metal.3   

Voting results

Proposition 67 passed with more than 53% of voters in support. While this may seem like a small margin of victory, it is not: Since 1976—the year I graduated from high school—the winning presidential candidate has received 53% or more of the popular vote only twice.4 It was a landslide victory, the repercussions of which are still being seen today. 

Human behavior

In my previous article, I stated my belief that plastic waste was caused by human behavior. 

“The fact that single-use plastic bags are in our waterways is not because they are plastic, it is because of human behavior. Lazy, careless, thoughtless people are throwing these bags out of their windows, over the sides of the boat or tossing them aside as they walk.” 

In my previous article, I also wrote about the need for intelligent solutions. Bans? We don’t need no stinking bans! But maybe we need more plastic bans to shake up the industry and get everyone to be more proactive.

How many times should you use a plastic bag before you recycle and re-process it?

How do you go about changing human behavior? Should we let industry innovators come up with new solutions? Should we allow free-market forces to determine the best path forward? Maybe we should just wait and see until some zealot puts an extruder on the banks of the Potomac and starts squirting resin pellets directly in the river, and plastic of all kind is forever banned?

plastic bag in sky

How many times should you use a plastic bag before you toss it aside? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

From time to time, I have gotten into heated “discussions” with people who smoke cigarettes. Not about the smoke, but about the cigarette butts they leave lying around. They toss them aside, and when confronted often respond:

“What’s the problem? It’s biodegradable.” 

“Oh yeah, then why don’t you eat it, and biodegrade it yourself?”

“Are you kidding me? That’s disgusting.”

That’s exactly right. Cigarette butts are disgusting. They shouldn’t be on the sidewalk, on the beach or anywhere near people or pets. But nobody is pushing the cigarette industry to implement collection and recycling systems for cigarette butts. On the other hand, the tobacco industry is heavily regulated, highly taxed and suffering from the effects of countless class action lawsuits. Is the same thing going to happen to the plastics industry?   

“Lead me, follow me or get the hell out of my way.”

—George S. Patton

  1. Data, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
  2. Statewide Recycling Rate for Plastic Carryout Bags
  3. The Aluminum Association
  4. Presidential Election Results

Eric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years' experience in plastics design. He has helped develop products ranging from boogie boards, water basketball games and SCUBA diving equipment to disposable lighters, cell phones and handheld medical devices.

Larson owns Art of Mass Production (AMP), an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. AMP provides services to manufacturing companies in the consumer electronics, wireless and medical device industries, helping them to create products that make a difference in people’s lives.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site, where he writes about plastics technology and its effect on people and the planet. His newest book is Poly and The Poopy Heads. It is a children’s book about plastics and recycling, and is available on Amazon

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