.

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

July 25, 2011 1:30 PM ET
plastic shopping bags
Sea of Waste: A massive landfill in Shanghai overflows with single-use bags.
Alessandro Digaetano/Polaris

–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.

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