Plastic bag questions and answers
Last updated 4/23/2009 at Noon
By Strom Peterson
Edmonds City Council member
The Scoop on Plastic Bags
The Edmonds City Council is currently considering a ban on single-use check out bags in our city. The basic what's, where's, and why's of this legislation are answered in some of the following frequently asked questions.
Are all plastic bags being banned? No. Bags for meats, vegetables, and bulk foods will not be banned. Neither will garbage bags, sandwich bags, and the like, only single-use plastic shopping bags.
What about "dog poop"? As mentioned above, select plastic bags are still available (for vegetables etc). Special biodegradable bags are also available for this specific purpose. While it may cost a few dollars, you will also support a local business.
Why should government get involved? The effects of plastic bags have a direct impact on the environment and public health. Studies by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation indicate that plastic does not completely degrade in the marine environment (unlike paper), and instead breaks down into small pieces. These small bits of plastic attract bacteria, pesticides, and other toxins which may be transferred to marine animals that ingest them as food. This bioaccumulation of toxins travels up the food chain to reach dangerous levels. We are at the top of that food chain. Like government bans on lead paint, asbestos, or DDT, this ban is primarily a public health issue.
During these economic times, why now? Establishing Edmonds as a "green" city will support economic development by attracting new businesses, residents, and tourists. This is not only about the environment, it is about our economic bottom line.
This is just part of a more comprehensive agenda that the council is working on in order to foster better economic and environmental sustainability.
Isn't paper worse than plastic? The City discourages the use of all types of single-use bags, because they consume more resources and produce more waste than reusable bags. However, plastic bags are the least desirable because they are made using oil (a nonrenewable resource), degrade very slowly, and pose a public health risk.
What about recycling plastic bags? The average of recycling plastic bags nationally is below 5%. Edmonds uses approximately 8,000,000 plastic bags per year. That means Edmonds will still have over 7 million bags somewhere in our environment. Large grocery store chains have provided recycling containers for plastic bags since the early 1990s without a significant increase in recycling rates. Recycling rates for paper bags are vastly higher than for plastic.
But plastic bags are free, aren't they? The Wall Street Journal estimates the US consumes 100 billion single use plastic grocery bags every year making it a $4 billion a year industry. This is passed on to the consumer through higher food costs. This does not even count the additional costs for cleanup (your tax dollars), space in landfills (your money again), or the long term environmental and human health impacts.
What stores are affected? That depends on how the legislation is written. Many municipalities have focused on large retailers as that is the bulk of the problem. Others have tiered the ban to give smaller retailers an opportunity to adjust. We, as a council, have not made a final decision on this and will take public comment into account.
What is the solution? Reusable shopping bags are both the best economical and environmental solution. One reusable shopping bag will replace hundreds of single use options. Reusable bags conserve resources while reducing litter, waste to landfills, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many stores offer small incentives for using reusable bags.
Will this make a difference? Obviously a bag ban in Edmonds is not going to end the ever increasing amount of plastics fouling our environment. However, cities and countries around the world are banning plastic bags and promoting the use of reusable bags. In 2008, China banned the use of the ultra-thin plastic bags (saving 37 million barrels of oil). Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2003 as did Coles Bay, Tasmania.
What's next? The Council will be taking public comment on April 28th and will be scheduling a public hearing within the next 90 days. The city attorney is writing a draft ordinance which will be discussed at both the committee and council level.
Finding solutions for current uses for plastic bags are part of this process, including helping organizations such as the Edmonds Food Bank or Friends of the Library make a transition or using fewer bags.
Decisions are being made at a national level regarding environmental policy and regulations. Edmonds is in a position to become a more sustainable city and to make the decisions rather than letting the decisions be made for us. If you have any questions or comments, please email Council Member Strom Peterson at [email protected]