The Plastic Bag Wars

The world consumes 1 million plastic shopping bags every minute - and the industry is fighting hard to keep it that way

plastic shopping bags
Alessandro Digaetano/Polaris
Sea of Waste: A massive landfill in Shanghai overflows with single-use bags.
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–American shoppers use an estimated 102 billion plastic shopping bags each year — more than 500 per consumer. Named by Guinness World Records as "the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world," the ultrathin bags have become a leading source of pollution worldwide. They litter the world's beaches, clog city sewers, contribute to floods in developing countries and fuel a massive flow of plastic waste that is killing wildlife from sea turtles to camels. "The plastic bag has come to represent the collective sins of the age of plastic," says Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Many countries have instituted tough new rules to curb the use of plastic bags. Some, like China, have issued outright bans. Others, including many European nations, have imposed stiff fees to pay for the mess created by all the plastic trash. "There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere," the United Nations Environment Programme recently declared. But in the United States, the plastics industry has launched a concerted campaign to derail and defeat anti-bag measures nationwide. The effort includes well-placed political donations, intensive lobbying at both the state and national levels, and a pervasive PR campaign designed to shift the focus away from plastic bags to the supposed threat of canvas and paper bags — including misleading claims that reusable bags "could" contain bacteria and unsafe levels of lead.

"It's just like Big Tobacco," says Amy Westervelt, founding editor of Plastic Free Times, a website sponsored by the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition. "They're using the same underhanded tactics — and even using the same lobbying firm that Philip Morris started and bankrolled in the Nineties. Their sole aim is to maintain the status quo and protect their profits. They will stop at nothing to suppress or discredit science that clearly links chemicals in plastic to negative impacts on human, animal and environmental health."

Made from high-density polyethylene — a byproduct of oil and natural gas — the single-use shopping bag was invented by a Swedish company in the mid-Sixties and brought to the U.S. by ExxonMobil. Introduced to grocery-store checkout lines in 1976, the "T-shirt bag," as it is known in the industry, can now be found literally every­where on the planet, from the bottom of the ocean to the peaks of Mount Everest. The bags are durable, waterproof, cheaper to produce than paper bags and able to carry 1,000 times their own weight. They are also a nightmare to recycle: The flimsy bags, many thinner than a strand of human hair, gum up the sorting equipment used by most recycling facilities. "Plastic bags and other thin-film plastic is the number-one enemy of the equipment we use," says Jeff Murray, vice president of Far West Fibers, the largest recycler in Oregon. "More than 300,000 plastic bags are removed from our machines every day — and since most of the removal has to be done by hand, that means more than 25 percent of our labor costs involves plastic-bag removal."

The initial resistance to plastic bags came from manufacturers of paper bags, who saw them as a major threat. Environmentalists took up the cause of eliminating single-use bags in the 1990s, but they made little headway until a sailor and researcher named Charles Moore passed through the North Pacific Gyre in 1997 and drew international attention to the vast flood of plastic trash polluting the world's oceans.

The first nationwide ban was enacted a decade ago in Bangladesh, after plastic bags clogged storm drains and caused massive floods. China issued a top-down order banning plastic bags in June 2008 — just two months before it hosted the Olympics — in an effort to reduce the amount of "white pollution." Even though the ban is openly flouted by street vendors, it has still made a tremendous impact: In the first year alone, China decreased its use of plastic bags by two-thirds, eliminating some 40 billion bags — a move that saved the energy equivalent of 11.7 million barrels of oil.

The Indian city of Delhi boasts some of the world's most aggressive legislation on plastic bags, not only fining individual users and businesses that hand out the bags but also threatening jail time for offenders and plastic-bag manufacturers. This year, Italy became the first European country to issue a nationwide ban on plastic bags, while Ireland places a 15-cent fee on every bag — a move that reduced usage by 90 percent in the first three months. All told, 25 percent of the world's population now lives in areas with bans or fees on plastic bags.

While other nations have effectively cracked down on plastic bags, the U.S. government has left local communities to fend for themselves. In 2007, San Francisco became the first American city to ban plastic bags, and Washington, D.C., has imposed a five-cent fee per bag, cutting monthly use from 22.5 million bags to barely 3 million. Unlike attacks on plastic products such as Styrofoam, which were orchestrated by well-known environmental groups, the fight against plastic bags has been led for the most part by community organizers and concerned citizens who put pressure on their local businesses and governments. In recent years, a growing number of U.S. communities — from 30 townships in Alaska to the Outer Banks of North Carolina — have introduced some 200 anti-bag measures.

The widespread mobilization against plastic bags has sparked a counterattack by the plastics industry, which was slow to react to the rising tide of negative sentiment among consumers. Leading the charge to protect the plastic bag is the American Chemistry Council, an industry group whose members include petro-chemical giants like ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical. With 125 employees and more than $120 million in annual revenues, the ACC and its members are using their deep pockets and extensive political connections to overturn bans on plastic bags, cast doubt on legitimate scientific studies and even file lawsuits against anti-bag activists. The council, which spent $8 million on lobbying alone last year, has also put together a front group called the Progressive Bag Affiliates, made up of top bag manufacturers like Hilex Poly, Superbag and Unistar Plastics.

The industry campaign has already won several victories. In 2008, after Seattle imposed a 20-cent fee on plastic bags, the ACC spent $180,000 to gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, then devoted another $1.4 million to overturn the fee — the most spent on any Seattle referendum. The industry campaign relied largely on scare tactics, falsely claiming that the fee would cost the average consumer an extra $300 a year. In the end, it came down to money: The bag fee was soundly defeated.

Last year, the ACC weighed in to defeat AB 1998, a California proposal to ban the use of plastic bags in supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores statewide. The bill was supported by a broad coalition that included major grocers and retailers as well as recyclers and environmentalists, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his support behind the measure. "There is no question that getting rid of plastic bags would be a great victory for the environment," he told Rolling Stone. "In California, we put together a coalition of grocers, environmentalists and labor to confront this issue head-on, and it is my hope that the coalition will continue fighting until single-use plastic bags are an ancient memory."

The ACC and its member companies were determined not to let that happen. In the months before the vote, the industry spent $2 million on contributions to key legislators, extensive lobbying and media ads that portrayed the ban as a "hidden tax on grocery bills" that would "create a new state bureaucracy." Yielding to industry pressure, the state Senate rejected the ban by a vote of 21 to 14. Even some industry insiders lamented the decision. "AB 1998 was not perfect, but it would have settled the issue and we could all have moved forward," Robert Bateman, president of bag manufacturer Roplast Industries, wrote in an industry trade journal. "As it is, the uncertainty remains and we are having to deal with a new initiative to ban thin bags each month — or is it each week?"

The warning proved prophetic. In June, the Oregon legislature rejected a statewide ban on plastic bags after the industry moved to aggressively defeat it. "I'm blown away by the campaign to block this bill by out-of-state interests," says state Sen. Mark Hass, who co-authored the measure. Hilex Poly, a leading bag manufacturer, went so far as to meet with Hass and suggest that it might be willing to build a plant to recycle plastic bags in Oregon — if he agreed to not only drop the statewide ban but also prevent cities and counties from placing their own restrictions on plastic bags.

Hass rejected the deal. "The more I look into the recycling of plastic bags," he says, "the more I think these recycling plants are more of a PR stunt than anything of substance." Because most recycling plants can't handle the ultrathin trash, fewer than nine percent of plastic bags in the U.S. are recycled in any form.

In an even more disturbing tactic, the industry has begun filing lawsuits against activists who raise the alarm about plastic bags. The suits — known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP — are a form of corporate bullying, designed to intimidate and silence opponents who lack the resources to defend themselves against billion-dollar companies. The industry has sued every city or county in California that has passed anti-bag legislation, demanding that the local governments pay for expensive, independent studies on the environmental impact of eliminating plastic bags. And in January, three leading plastic-bag manufacturers filed suit against ChicoBag, a small California company that makes reusable shopping bags, accusing it of causing "irreparable harm" to their business by defaming their product.

ChicoBag was founded by Andy Keller, an unemployed software salesman who visited his local landfill after an afternoon of landscaping in 2004 and was appalled by the blizzard of plastic bags he saw floating around the dump. That same day, he sat down at his kitchen table and started sewing together his own version of an ultrathin, reusable bag. Since then, Keller has become an outspoken opponent of plastic bags, creating a character called the "Bag Monster" to raise awareness about the environmental impact of disposable bags. Volunteers dressed as the monster — wearing a jumpsuit covered in 500 plastic bags, the number used annually by the average American shopper — have visited schools, shopping malls and even the White House.

The industry is suing ChicoBag in South Carolina, the home state of Hilex Poly, which offers little protection against SLAPP suits. Although the lawsuit could put Keller out of business — he has few resources to devote to a prolonged legal battle — it has also backfired on the industry, drawing even more attention to the excessive waste caused by plastic bags. "The whole idea of them suing me is to stop me," Keller says. "But instead, it has ended up galvanizing the entire movement. It's like a big school bully that came to try and take my lunch money, and then all the other kids who got picked on start standing up and saying, 'Hey, we're not going to take it anymore.'"

Whatever the outcome, the lawsuit reveals just how much the growing movement to eliminate plastic bags has frightened the plastics industry. Banning plastic bags is ultimately a statement against the disposable, throwaway culture we all have become accustomed to and dependent upon. If the plastic bag falls, what's next? Styrofoam? Plastic water bottles? "We're going to keep pushing this issue," says Sarah Sikich, director of coastal resources for Heal the Bay, an environmental group based in Southern California. "It's a battle we can win. In the end, public awareness and the grassroots movement will overcome the deep pockets of industry groups like the ACC."

This is from the August 4, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1136: August 4, 2011