Plastics industry joins forces to battle grocery bag bans
Plastic bag makers and their polyethylene suppliers were given good news when the data used by environmental groups was shown to be erroneous. Will it matter?
Ivan Lerner/New York
BLAME CANADA. The first municipality in North America to successfully ban plastic shopping bags, usually made from polyethylene (PE), was Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, Canada, a town of roughly 500 people. Implemented in April 2007, fines can reach C$1,000 ($1,000).
Many countries have put taxes on bags, and in 2003, the Republic of Ireland raised eyebrows by initiating a 22-euro cent (35 cent) fee on every plastic bag at supermarkets. In 2007, that was increased to 32 euro cents.
Calling the bags “white pollution,” and claiming that over 2bn bags are thrown away every year in Beijing alone, China will ban cheap, thin bags, and tax thicker ones, beginning June 1. That news directly caused Henan Huaqiang Plastic (HHP) to go into bankruptcy in early February.
HHP was responsible for 20% of China’s plastic shopping bag market, and was considered the largest plastic bag manufacturer there. The company said it would shut down to avoid further losses.
Despite HHP’s liquidation, it may still be too soon to tell if China’s ban is completely implemented. “Sometimes, China’s environmental regulations are not always strictly enforced,” says Robert Bauman, vice president for polymers at US consultancy Nexant. “It will happen if the Chinese government really wants it to happen – and something like this may not happen, after all.”
Last September, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya banned PE bags less than 30 microns thick, and in January, Australia’s environment minister said he would introduce a ban on plastic bags by the end of the year. “Other countries can do it. Australia can, too,” said minister Peter Garrett at the time.
In March, San Francisco voted itself the first city in the US to ban plastic bags from large grocery stores. “If you look at what happened in Ireland, plastic demand went down tremendously, about 50-60%,” notes Bauman. “Could this happen in the US? If the bans are widespread enough, yes.”
However, legislative bag ban proposals in cities in Maryland, New York and Hawaii have been halted.
In New York City, instead of banning, the city adopted a recycling law, and in Annapolis, Maryland, an environmental review committee replaced a ban bill. “The ban would do nothing to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer.
“Bans should always be a last resort, not a first resort,” added Alderman Ross Arnett.
The US is “clearly” leaning toward recycling, points out Steve Russell, managing director of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) plastic division. “From the largest state (California) to the largest city (New York City) to the largest retailer (Wal-Mart), all have closely considered this issue and all have opted to support plastic bag recycling as the best environmental choice.”
Plastics, he says, particularly in this economy, are too valuable a resource to end up as waste or landfill. “We need to use plastic’s energy aspects and value again and again.”
Coming about a month after UK prime minister Gordon Brown ordered supermarkets to begin charging for bags, on March 8, the Times of London published an expose of the “flawed science and exaggerated claims” of the global bag ban campaign.
It turns out that heavily quoted data from a 2002 Australian government-commissioned plastic bag report – regarding the touchy subject of numbers of animal deaths due to plastic bags – was misinterpreted information from a 1987 Canadian report. That report did not mention plastic bags, and instead, focused on discarded fishing nets.
“This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions, which are counterproductive,” says Lord Dick Taverne, chairman of Sense About Science, a UK-based charitable trust that promotes independent peer review. “Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything.”
The plastics industry is a visible target, points out Greg Wilkinson, who is vice president of public and government affairs at Canada-based NOVA Chemicals, which makes PE. “A lot of things are not in the control of an environmentally minded consumer. For example, most consumers cannot afford to switch to a hybrid vehicle because it is too expensive,” he explains. “People feel they have much more control over the bags they bring home from the supermarket.”
PE is a big part of NOVA. Out of total revenues for 2007 of $6.7bn (€4.3bn), up from 2006 sales of $6.5bn, NOVA’s revenue from PE was $2.02bn, up from $1.99bn in 2006, and $1.43bn in 2005.
Earlier this year, NOVA said it will be spending about $80m on a series of PE plant modernization and expansion projects in Ontario, which will add around 250m lbs (113,000 tonnes)/year of capacity over the next two years.
Some Americans believe they are being patriotic when supporting a bag ban. They think their grocery bags are petroleum-based, and therefore probably made from foreign oil, when, according to the ACC, more than 80% of the bags manufactured in the US are made from domestic natural gas.
NOVA points out that in Canada, only about one-tenth of 1% of hydrocarbons there are used in plastic bags. “It is a myth that plastic bags are a drain of resources,” says Wilkinson. “The total amount of PE [produced] used in plastic bags is about 5%.”
THE LITTERBUG PROBLEM
Bag bans originally started as a response toward a growing litter problem. In some countries, because so many bags have been discarded improperly, they end up clogging sewage lines and causing health hazards.
But “product-specific bans do nothing to reduce litter or the amount of waste in our landfill, and are not viable solutions,” states Kelly Polich, public issues manager, for Dow Chemical.
A study conducted by the Ontario-based Canadian Plastic Industry Association, found that if all the plastic bags in Canada were put into landfills, they would make up less than 1% of residential solid waste.
Litter and pollution “are highly emotional issues,” says Bauman. “People feel justified [banning bags] – and you are never going to convince them otherwise.”
While it is easy to get rid of something, finding a replacement is not always as easy. The paper bag industry has very little excess bag capacity, according to Nexant.
Many paper bag plants were converted more than 20 years ago to other products like paperboard or cardboard. It was the PE bag that helped pound nails into the paper bag’s coffin. The plastic bag cost less, took up less storage space and shopkeepers did not have to worry about damage from water, pests or vermin.
“If the ban spreads to other cities, there is certainly going to be a shortage of paper bags and other replacement bags, like biodegradable [ones],” says Bauman.
According to the California Grocers Association, standard plastic bags used in supermarkets cost about 2 cents to make, a paper bag 5-8 cents, and a biodegradable bag can cost roughly 15 cents.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, Americans use roughly 100bn plastic shopping bags a year.
Environmen-talists are only giving part of the picture, says James Cooper, director, petrochemical, for Washington, D.C.-based trade association the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA). Plastics derived from petroleum feedstocks tend to be more cost-effective, and leave less of an environmental footprint overall.
“When people are thinking of things in an environmental fashion, they should be thinking of the total environmental footprint, not just disposal of plastics,” says Cooper.
Consumers need to compare the chemicals, processes and energy requirements of paper, versus plastics. According to the ACC, plastic bags require 40% less energy to manufacture than paper bags, generate about 80% less waste, and use less than 4% of the water required for manufacture. They also weigh less and take up less space: 2,000 plastic bags weigh about 30lbs, while 2,000 paper bags weigh around 280lbs. Meanwhile, the manufacture of paper bags generates roughly 70% more emissions than plastic.
To study the situation, the ACC conducted a forum last year where representatives from the nongovernmental organization community, the US Department of the Interior, the US Environmental Protection Agency, state and local governments, and others looked over the litter problem.
The forum decided that what was needed was more opportunities for recycling, more public-private partnerships and the establishment of a national campaign to make littering socially unacceptable.
Practicing what it preaches, the ACC has begun a partnership with the California Department of State Parks and Recreation and the Keep California Beautiful organization. “We have been providing recycle bins on many California beaches, and promoting these efforts there on TV, radio, billboards and other signage,” says Russell. “It’s a successful program that we want to expand: The ACC has spent $3.5m on this campaign – it is a serious effort.”
The market for recycled plastic bags is “strong and growing,” says Russell. In the US, 650m lbs of plastic bags were recovered for recycling in 2006, and initial estimates show that for 2007, that amount has grown to 820m lbs for 2007.
LEADING GLOBAL POLYETHYLENE PRODUCERS, 2008 (E)
|Company||Nation||Capacity (‘000 tonnes/year)||%|
Source: Bank of America
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