The plastic bags we all stock up on when we go shopping seem to have a funny way of ending up everywhere but in recycling bins.
They float in our rivers and ocean, blow in the breeze by our driveways and end up in the mouths of hungry animals that fatally mistake them for food. According to a report done by the city of Los Angeles, an estimated 2 billion plastic bags are used in the city each year and only about 5 percent of them are recycled.
But, the Los Angeles City Council has the answer to this everyday problem — forbid people from using plastic bags. On Tuesday the city council passed an ordinance that would ban the use of plastic bags in Los Angeles grocery stores and other shops. The ban, which will go into effect in 2010, is being used by the city council to “persuade” the state to lift a two-year-old mandate that forbids municipalities from placing fees on plastic shopping bags, according to the Los Angeles Times.
If the state lifts the mandate, the city will renege its ban and require a 25-cent fee for all customers requesting a plastic bag. Whether or not the state is persuaded enough by the proposal to allow the city of Los Angeles to charge 25 cents per bag is left to be seen. What is for sure, though, is getting a plastic bag after 2010 will no longer be easy.
But, is government intervention really the proper way of handling this major environmental issue? Because other types of grocery bags can harm the environment in their own ways, and placing restrictions on plastic bags will force companies to liquidate thousands of jobs, this government regulation of plastic bags will undoubtedly have a negative effect on California’s environment and economy.
If the state does not lift the ban on plastic bag fees and the ordinance does go into effect in 2010, our environmental situation will not improve by very much. When the state puts a ban on only one type of disposable product, they leave the door wide open for others to fill the void.
As was seen in San Francisco after the city put a ban on plastic bags, paper bags became a popular alternative in supermarkets. Some people believe that paper bags are better for the environment because they are not petroleum-based like plastic bags. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
This is largely due to the fact that it takes four times as much energy to create paper bags than it does plastic bags and around 90 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper compared to a pound of plastic, according to the 1989 Plastic Recycling Directory composed by the Society of Plastics Industry.
In addition, paper bags take up more space in landfills, streets and gutters, and they don’t degrade or breakdown at a much higher rate than plastic bags do, allowing for just as much of an opportunity for animals to ingest them. Certainly, there are biodegradable bags that break down in about a month or two.
But, these bags are not easy to mass-produce and only a handful of companies make them. Besides, their long-term affects on the environment have not been studied. Re-useable bags are another popular alternative. But the resources depleted during production and the pollutants emitted into the atmosphere during the creation and transportation of these mesh alternatives also negatively affect the environment.
The positive strides made with fewer plastic bags in the market place are, thus, negated by the creation of more re-useable bags. If the state is persuaded by the ordinance to lift the ban on plastic bag fees and a charge does get implemented, our economy will be affected by the loss of thousands of blue collar jobs.
As the demand for plastic bags dries up, factories will be forced to shut down and thousands of people will be out of work. As we saw with IKEA when it started charging 5 cents a bag, even small fees can dramatically affect the demand for plastic bags. IKEA saw a 92 percent decrease in usage a year after implementing its fee, according to the L.A. Times.
The unemployment rate will rise and our economy will suffer. Sure, these unemployed Californians could get work in paper or biodegradable bag factories; undoubtedly the demand for these products would be much stronger without any competition. But, because the production of these types of disposable bags harms our environment just as much as plastic bags, the environmental problems we are trying to fix will still linger.
How can we save our planet and not damage our economy, then? The real problem is wasters and litterers. That bag in the bird’s mouth didn’t get there by itself. Someone allowed it get there. And, the bag hanging out in that landfill not degrading or breaking down got there because someone was too lazy to recycle it. The real solution to this environmental problem is neither a ban nor a fee, rather it is to change the way Californians think about waste.
In essence, banning plastic bags doesn’t stop people from leaving trash in L.A., it stops people from leaving plastic bags in L.A. If environmental groups and the city government are really concerned about our planet, they should make an effort to go after the root of the problem.