(Courtesy of Alderman Alison Leary Mooradian)
Plastic bags are cheap, easy to use, and take up very little space, and their use and disposal has an enormous negative effect on the environment. Millions of animals are killed or mutilated by ingesting or entanglement in plastic bags every year. Even when properly disposed of, they’re so aerodynamic that they frequently still blow away and become litter. Plastic bags do not biodegrade; instead they slowly fragment into smaller and smaller bits that can then contaminate soil, waterways, and our oceans. These small bits, known as microplastics, displace food supplies and threaten the survival of a broad range of sea life. Microplastics are inert, and once in the oceans, stay there forever.
- The U.S. uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, which are made from an estimated equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil and cost retailers an estimated $4 billion.
- Plastic bags are not biodegradable, and although they do degrade through mechanical action and photodegradation in the presence of light, these processes are slow taking an estimated 300 to 1000 years to occur.
- The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean.
- Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags.
- Due to the low value of plastic bags, the recycling rate is abysmally low.
- Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000. The recycled product can be sold for $32.
- Production of 1 pound of plastic for shopping bags produces approximately 6 pounds of global warming CO2
How will this proposed law reduce solid waste?
The reason for introducing this proposed law is not to reduce the volume of municipal solid waste, but to highlight the effect of this type of waste when landfilled or littered. In this case, primarily to address the hazard of polyethylene (HDPE or LDPE) bags to the marine environment.
Is paper worse?
All single-use throwaway items negatively impact the environment. One ordinance cannot solve all waste problems, but simply help alleviate one aspect. When plastic bag bans are enacted, more individuals will utilize reusable bags. Others may skip bags entirely, and some may use a paper bag. In order to avoid having paper take the place of plastic, some municipalities have banned plastic bags and mandated a fee for paper bags.
Paper doesn’t pervade in the environment. Requiring that paper bags be made of 80% recycled material helps minimize the impact that increased reliance on paper could cause. Paper bags are very frequently recycled, where plastic bags are not. However, use of paper does mean cutting trees and the use of chemicals required in the fabrication process.
Plastic bags have detrimental impacts at every step in their life cycle, such as the extraction of the natural gas (or petroleum) used in their production, the energy consumed and pollution generated in the manufacturing process, and the fact that most of them end landfilled, incinerated or littered.
Will this negatively impact sales?
The Mayor’s plastic bag working group canvassed local businesses and retailers to gauge the impact that a plastic bag ban would have on local businesses. The determination is that it would have little to no impact economic impact. Municipalities throughout the United States and around the world have enacted plastic bag bans without any impact on sales. An estimated 20 million people in the US are already covered by bag bans and/or fees.
Can’t we just make recycling bins more available?
These bags are rarely recycled due to their low value. The City of Newton does not recycle them and they are prohibited from recycling bins. Some stores have collection bins for recycling. At most only about 5% of our plastic bags are recycled.
Is education the answer?
Even if we doubled or tripled our 5% recycling rate (the most that could be expected with public education), we would still have an unacceptably low recycling rate. Education would not affect the litter rate.
What the ideal bag thickness?
Most ordinances place the threshold at 3.0 mils (a mil is a one-thousandth of an inch); bags thinner than 3.0 mils are generally meant for single use, while thicker bags tend to be reusable, more durable and less flyaway.
Are all plastic bags (compostable or not, thicker or thinner, marine degradable or not), currently able to be returned for recycling at (some) grocery stores?
No, only polyethylene bags can be returned at grocery stores. Polyethylene bags are not ASTM-D6400 compostable or ASTM-D7081 marine biodegradable.
What are some typical wholesale bag costs?
The wholesale cost of bags today is lowest for polyethylene plastic bags, followed by paper, and lastly ASTM-D7081 biodegradable bags (when available). However, the total costs of polyethylene bags are paper within close range of each other. If people switch to reusable bags, then stores could even save money.
Standard single use plastic bags (like those given at supermarkets) (Alibaba) 1¢ to 5¢
Standard paper grocery bags 12 x 7 x 17” without handles (PaperMart) 3.5 to 8¢
heavy duty with handles (Pack Secure) 16¢
Reusable non-woven polypropylene bags (Alibaba) 44¢ to 1.90
Can retailers charge for paper bags and/or reusable bags?
Should a municipality exempt small stores?
It depends on the specific situation. While many municipalities do not exempt small stores, Newton’s ordinance does exempt stores less than 3,500 sq ft. A canvass of select Village Centers by members of the Plastic Bag Working Group found that most small retailers and independent businesses do not use the targeted bags. For comparison the Town of Brookline’s exemption is 2,500 sq ft.
Should restaurants and/or food vendors considered retail for the purpose of this proposal?
A sit-down restaurant is a service not retail. A caterer would not be considered retail as well. However, a restaurant that has a point of sale such as a take-out counter or a separate prepared foods area would qualify. “Doggy bags” would not be covered by this since that is a by-product of the service not a standalone purchased retail item. These details would normally be determined by the municipal department that is assigned with the responsibility of implementing the law.
Would thin bags without handles such as those used for vegetables at grocery stores be prohibited?
No, produce bags are not point-of-sale bags (provided at the check-out station).
Are there unintended negative environmental effects of this proposed law?
Some municipal proposals allow paper without restrictions. Paper has its own environmental consequences, although these can be minimized by requiring that paper bags be made of 80% recycled material, which is widely available. We also note that while plastic bags are recycled only 5% of the time, paper bags are recycled more than 50% of the time (on average), and this ratio is much higher in many communities.
The remaining 20% of the fiber content of paper bags will come from trees – and whether or not the trees are sustainably harvested or from private forests, cutting trees is something that should be avoided. Some municipalities are pursuing a wait-and-see policy: if there’s a significant shift to paper, the next step would be exploring a fee. Other municipalities are seeking a fee for paper as part of their ordinance.
Are compostable plastic bags are an option?
If a plastic absolutely must be used, there are alternatives that are biodegradable, compostable, and meet the environmental testing standards ATM D6400 and ASTM D7081. Allowing these bioplastics in limited circumstances will allow shoppers to use checkout bags that have the convenience of polyethylene bags. However, bioplastics can divert needed food supplies and are often made of GMO corn. They don’t compost in home composting bins, requiring municipal composting facilities. ASTM 6494, or so-called oxodegradable bags should not be permitted. They are made from fossil fuels, and have many of the worst aspects of standard HDPE carryout bags. Reusable bags of any material are allowed under all municipal ordinances.
Shouldn’t we seek a comprehensive solution for all our litter problems?
Absolutely! But complex problems, such as litter and waste, have complex solutions. Around the world, despite efforts by thousands of waste and litter-control professionals, no “comprehensive solution” has been devised. The best system is to segment the problem into smaller ones that have proven solutions. Banning plastic bags is a proven solution.
Can one municipality really make a difference?
What’s very clear is that if we do nothing, our waterways and oceans will become increasingly choked with plastic bags. By taking action the City of Newton demonstrates a commitment to sustainable practices, and it will encourage other municipalities to take similar action – and that will make a real difference. Six Massachusetts communities have already taken action, including the Town of Brookline, who estimate that they are removing more than one million bags a month from their waste stream.