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California’s plastic bag ban promotes bad science

Since California's passage and approval of SB 270 by the California legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, the manufacturing community has had much to say about this bill that many see as just plain "bad science." Manufacturing.net, an online manufacturing news and editorial publication that comes out daily, posted an editorial (10/9) titled "Banning Plastic Bags May Be Bad Science," by editor Chris Fox.

Clare Goldsberry

October 10, 2014

4 Min Read
California’s plastic bag ban promotes bad science

Fox quoted from Bill Carteaux's comments on the ban, noting that "According to SPI, 90% of Americans reuse their plastic bags in one form or another, which debunks AB270's claim that plastic bags are one-time use. The organization confronts the chares that plastic bags are both a waste and environmental hazard" and gives statistics to support that."

California has proven over and over again that it is the land of hype and hyperbole (only they mean it to be taken literally!) rather than scientifically based information - this in spite of the fact that the state is home to some really great universities such as Stanford.

Carteaux, in his comments, noted that nonwoven bags (which are polypropylene) are not recyclable, and cotton bags, which are heavily promoted as alternatives to plastic, "must be used 131 times before their contribution to global climate change becomes lower than that of a plastic bag used just once."

That is because cotton uses a lot of resources. Believe it or not, Arizona grows a lot of cotton. Large cotton farms abut the city of Scottsdale just east of where I live. While cotton doesn't require huge amounts of water, which is good here in the desert, it does require water. The cotton must be sprayed via crop-dusting airplanes to prevent boll weevils from attacking the cotton. And at the end of the growing season - just about now - these farmers employ crop dusters once again to spray a herbicide to cause the leaves of the cotton plant to die, leaving only the cotton bolls, making them easier to pick via large tractors and picking machinery.

By the time you all up all of that, you've got a pretty large "footprint" as far as resource use and carbon outlay are concerned. Think about that the next time you buy cotton bags for carrying your groceries home. Then look at the plastic bags and think of all you use them for - many who commented on Manufacturing.net's site said they use them for lining small trash cans (I use them for this), and to pick up after their pets (I use them for this as well).

"This is the issue at hand. The lack of science or logic in SB 270 sets a disconcerting precedent for what legislators could do under the guise of environmental stewardship," said Carteaux. But then there's a lot of that going around these days, and we know there's a lack of science-based classes in schools which only contributes to this problem.

"This should concern the plastics industry at large: unscientific bills supported by special interests could encourage bans on other plastic products," Carteaux stated.

The lack of scientific understanding by legislators and the general populace at large, could go further than just hurting the plastics industry. It could extend to energy, which a manufacturing nation needs - steady, strong and reliable energy - to run its manufacturing plants. California already has a "Flex Alert" program in place. Flex Alert is the politically correct name for the warning of an event that in emerging economies they call a "brown out" or "black out."

In California, a Flex Alert is "an urgent call to Californians to immediately conserve electricity and shift demand to off-peak hours (after 6 p.m.)." The Flex Alert campaign is an educational and emergency alert program that informs consumers about how and when to conserve electricity.

Here are the three things all Californians are supposed to do when they get a "Flex Alert" warning via text or email:

  • Turn off all unnecessary lights, computers and appliances

  • Adjust your AC thermostat to 78o or higher. Use a fan when possible (But doesn't this take electricity? Oh, perhaps they mean use a palm leaf to fan yourself)

  • Postpone using major appliances and equipment until after 6 p.m.

So all you processors in California, get ready to shut the presses down (unless you have generators and can supplement your power), until the "Flex Alert" or brown-out/black-out warning is over. I think they have this problem in Bangladesh as well.

Be assured that this problem too - as well as the perceived plastic bag problem - is just as much a result of non-scientific hype. Manufacturing.net's Chris Fox concedes that he's a "skeptic" about the plastic industry's claims, but "if SPI's number is accurate (and not politically spun)," (and we know California's numbers are not politically spun now, don't we?) "plastic could still be better for the environment."

Yes, Chris, plastic IS fantastic!

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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