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Reason Foundation

Paper v. plastic debate finally has its day in court

Skaidra Smith-Heisters
January 29, 2008, 9:06pm

Ordinarily environmental impact reports (EIRs) are sad affairs, with neighbors bitterly fighting neighbors and visions of the future pitted against memories of the past–but if the City of Oakland is forced to complete an EIR on their proposed ban on non-biodegradable plastic grocery bags, I'd anticipate the results as eagerly as a playoff between two favorite teams. Oakland was one of many cities that took note after San Francisco banned non-biodegradable plastic bags last year (that ban went into effect in November). The "Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling," represented in court by Downey Brand LCC, has since sued on the grounds that the City of Oakland failed to take into account the environmental impacts of the ban, as required by public agencies under the California Environmental Quality Act. A Bay Area News Group report boils the case down to whether or not the ban on plastic bags will increase use of paper bags:
"It's not speculation," said Michael Mills, an attorney for the coalition. "Everyone knows that paper-bag use is going to increase, but no one knows by how much. That's the exact reason, your honor, to do the EIR." [...] "There's no evidence that more paper bags will be used," said Kevin Siegel, the attorney who represented the city in court. "There are only arguments that more paper bags will be used."
The Coalition also cites the cost of biodegradable (plant-based) plastic bags contaminating the recycling stream for conventional petroleum-based bags. For their part, the city alleges that the EPA report supporting the environmental superiority of plastic bags, commonly referenced in this debate, has recently been pulled from the EPA website. (Their supposition that the EPA report was withdrawn "presumably because it is unreliable, unsubstantiated, and/or not credible" is plausible; as I noted last year, EPA's recommendation in the fluorescent vs. incandescent light bulb debate was unreliable, unsubstantiated, and/or not credible, and that report seems to have disappeared from their website--though it is still available elsewhere.) Alameda County Superior Judge Frank Roesch is expected to rule on the case in the next couple of weeks. If the city is required to do an EIR on their bag ban, they should be compelled to do a full life-cycle analysis of all the options--taking into account the energy requirements and pollution created in the manufacture of conventional plastic, paper, and other grocery bags (an analysis that makes paper look decidedly bad), the different utility of each bag, consumer behaviors in reusing and recycling each type of bag, and the end-cycle impacts of litter on wildlife (the calculation that favors paper bags). Ban impacts on resource use are complicated and widespread. One example: there are hundreds of thousands of dogs in the Bay Area (the metro area is rumored to have one of the highest number of dogs per capita in the nation) and–at least until we successfully make the transition to heating our homes with dog waste–the majority of pet owners reuse a substantial number of plastic bags... you don't have to do the math, but you should get the idea. New York, Los Angeles, and numerous other municipalities nationwide that have considered plastic bag regulations since San Francisco's landmark ordinance have for the most part backed away from all-out bans and opted for more voluntary strategies, as they should. In the policy toolbox, a product ban is as blunt and unwieldy a tool as you can pick. (Update) Comments on the comments: The merit of an environmental review of the plastic bag ban shouldn't be judged purely on the motives of the industry group bringing the suit. (On the same token, I'll take the comment by "Bag Monster Buster" seriously even though it appears that the post was only intended to sell the product that that individual has a personal interest in.) Compact reusable bags such as the one being peddled in that post are typically made of non-recyclable petroleum-based polypropylene, and are not without environmental impacts of their own. Since Oakland's ban is likely to increase use of paper bags, and increase purchases of plastic bags (as our math-savvy dog owner has indicated below) AND increase purchases of polypropylene reusable bags, I'd say all of that belongs in the EIR. While they're at it, how about calculating the extra gas burned by people making extra trips to pick up the "green" shopping bags they've left at home? Another note: though companies like ChicoBag claim that they recycle their bags after they're no longer wanted for shopping, this is stretching the truth. Paper and conventional plastic grocery bags are well-suited for closed-loop recycling--meaning a used bag can be processed back into a new bag. What they do at ChicoBag is more aptly termed "downcycling"--re-purposing the material for a lesser use, such as stuffing or insulation. The point of all this is that, from an environmental perspective, there is a time and a place for use of each of these types of bags, and a ban on one type *necessarily* means that consumers are forced to use resources less efficiently in certain circumstances.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is Policy Analyst


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