14 October 2008 00:00 [Source: ICB]
With plastic bag bans starting to gain a worrying momentum in the US, the American Chemistry Council has joined the battle
IN EFFORTS to become greener, several US cities have adopted or are considering placing bans or fees on plastic shopping bags. But the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has been mobilizing residents of those cities against the initiatives.
Most recently, the city of Seattle, Washington, was set to impose a fee of $0.20 (€0.15) on each carry-out bag - paper as well as plastic - issued by stores. The city council approved the fee in July in an effort to discourage its residents from generating more waste through use of the bags.
The bag fee was set to come into effect on January 1, 2009, but an organization called the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax collected enough signatures to force a referendum vote on the issue.
The ACC funded the signature-gathering effort, arguing that the bag fee was poorly considered. The city council had funded studies for Seattle public utilities that found that 91% of city residents already reused or recycled their plastic bags. The studies also demonstrated that 63% of city residents were against the bag fee.
The antifee coalition was able to collect 22,292 signatures and the elections division of King County, which includes Seattle, certified that 15,099 of them were valid - more than the 14,374 required to force the issue to a referendum, likely to be held on August 18, 2009. The coalition spent $180,625 to collect the signatures.
US advocates of banning plastic bags or charging a fee for their use point to a law enacted in Ireland in 2002 that levied a fee on plastic bags. The fee, now about the equivalent of $0.33 per bag, resulted in a 94% drop in the use of plastic bags in a very short time.
Ireland authorized its "plas tax" to stamp out the large numbers of discarded bags that dotted the Irish countryside. The income from the tax finances activities at the country's environment ministry,
China is the latest nation to impose a tax on plastic bags, starting September 24. The China Plastics Processing Industry Association anticipates that taxes on plastic bags will cut their use in the country by one-third from an estimated 1.6m tonnes/year of plastic bags.
And in Africa, where plastic bag litter is particularly bad, some nations have launched outright bans.
Rwanda and Eritrea banned the bags entirely. Some other nations - such as South Africa, Uganda and Kenya - have laid down that plastic bags must be of a minimum thickness in an effort to reduce their ubiquity. Many African officials blame the mass production of thin, cheap plastic bags for their proliferation and subsequent littering of the landscape.
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In the US, meanwhile, several California cities have passed bans on non-biodegradable plastic bags, inspiring other cities, such as Seattle, to contemplate bans or fees. In 2005, San Francisco officials struck a deal with the California Grocers Association to spur large supermarkets into reducing the number of bags provided to their customers by 10 million/year.
The association eventually told the city it had reached a reduction of 7.5 million/year, but officials were dissatisfied because the number was not the agreed figure and unverifiable. Consumers in San Francisco were using an estimated 180 million plastic bags a year.
The city had previously contemplated a $0.17 fee on petroleum-based plastic bags to defray the estimated $8.5m/year spent to clean up plastic bag litter. But after the compromise collapsed, the city began discussing a ban on bags being dispensed at supermarkets and pharmacies.
The ban, adopted in April 2007, prohibits the use of thin, single-use bags at those retailers but permits the use of thick, reusable bags. The ban does not apply to clothing stores, bookstores and some other retailers.
Several months later, another Californian city, Oakland, banned nonbiodegradable plastic bags from all retail stores that gross $1m/year or more per year, except for produce bags in grocery stores.
In the summary of the Oakland law, city council members Nancy Nadel and Jean Quan argued that it takes 12m bbl of oil to produce between 500bn and 1 trillion plastic bags a year, and that thousands of marine animals die when they eat or become entangled in discarded bags.
Residents of the state of California use 19bn plastic bags a year, discarding 600 of them every second, according to Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental group promoting waste reduction and recycling.
Actions by these cities emboldened California state assemblyman Lloyd Levine, who had already successfully sponsored a statewide recycling program at grocery stores. He introduced a bill that would have imposed a $0.25 charge on plastic bags dispensed at grocery stores. The goal was to offset the environmental costs - estimated at $300m - that California state and city agencies have to pay to clean up plastic bag litter.
The California Assembly passed the bill, but it never received a vote in the Senate before the legislature adjourned.
In an effort to defeat the bill, the ACC commissioned California-based opinion research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates to conduct a poll of Californians on the plastic bag fee. The poll found that 58% of Californians opposed the $0.25 fee, with higher opposition in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, where two-thirds of poll respondents opposed it.
"The tax on plastic bags would be added to the already soaring food and energy bills families throughout California are facing with each trip to the grocery store," says Shari Jackson, ACC director of progressive bag affiliates. The ACC estimates the cost of the legislation to an average family in California at $400/year.
"California's year-old plastic bag recycling law needs time to work before legislators jump to drastic measures such as taxes and bag bans that will hurt families and business owners in an already struggling economy," Jackson argues.
After the California bill expired, plastic bag bans took off in Hawaii, and the Hawaii and Maui city councils passed laws last February that would restrict plastic bags.
The mayor of Hawaii vetoed the ban in September, while the mayor of Maui in August approved the law - to go into effect in January 2011.
The ACC sprang into action again to fight the proposals in Hawaii. "The obvious result of a plastic bag ban is an increase in the use of alternative bags, such as paper bags. Plastic bags use 70% less energy and generate 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than paper bags to manufacture," said Jackson in a statement. "Also, because paper bags weigh nearly 10 times more than plastic bags, the environmental and economic impacts of shipping paper bags to Maui will be significant."
The recycling of plastic bags and film increased by 24% throughout the US in 2006, Jackson noted. The use of voluntary recycling plans is more productive and produces less greenhouse gas emissions, she argued.
Other US cities are weighing bans or fees for plastic bags, according to Heal the Bay, a California nonprofit organization fighting plastic bag use as a means of reducing marine debris.
Officials in Bakersfield and Berkeley, California Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Oregon, are researching the impact of a plastic bag ban, while Boston, Massachusetts, is examining a proposal to ban plastic bags, as are New Haven, Connecticut, and Santa Cruz, California.
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