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Growing Call among Californians to Sack Plastic Grocery Bags

July 29, 2005 — By Deb Kollars, The Sacramento Bee
In Los Angeles, in San Francisco and in Sacramento, one of the most commonplace innovations to come along for consumers -- the plastic grocery bag -- is under attack.

What would our world be like without these wisps of handiness? How would we get our groceries home? Or our homegrown tomatoes into the office? Or dog droppings off a stranger's lawn?

Across California, a growing collection of political leaders, environmentalists and trash experts wish they could find out.

Plastic grocery bags are filling landfills, clogging storm drains and waterways, jamming recycling machines, harming marine animals and littering roadsides.

Close to 90 billion are used in the United States (population 300 million) every year, while just 5 percent or so ever get recycled into another useful plastic product.

"They're a big, big problem," said Doug Kobold, a solid waste planner with the county of Sacramento who is among those working to reduce the bags' presence on the planet.

The efforts are heating up like a well-tended compost pile, setting California apart as the nation's hot spot for anti-bag fever.

Within a few weeks, San Francisco is expected to resume discussions -- which began last winter, then were put on hold -- on a proposal to place a 17-cent fee on plastic grocery bags to discourage their use.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, is under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up its rivers. The city views plastic bags as a key offender and is exploring aggressive steps to encourage recycling and to get manufacturers to put more recycled content into bags.

If those efforts fail, a Los Angeles city councilman leading the push, Ed Reyes, plans to start talking bag fees.

Locally, Sacramento County's Waste Management and Recycling Division is planning a different step.

The county, like the city of Sacramento, sends to the landfill plastic grocery bags, dry cleaning bags and other types of flexible wrap, known as plastic film. Come spring, the county plans to add bundled plastic bags and film to its curbside recycling program, along with shredded paper and plastic toys, Kobold said.

Several California cities, such as San Juan Capistrano and San Jose, are doing the same. Twenty years ago, few could have imagined the need for such crusades.

But once plastic bags were introduced in the early 1980s, the lighter, cheaper alternative to paper caught on fast. Today, the making of plastic bags in the U.S. is a $1-billion-a-year industry, said Larry Johnson, president and managing partner of Vanguard Plastics, a large bag maker based in Dallas.

With the growth, a classic consumer conundrum was born: Paper or plastic?

Plastic bags are hard to beat in price and convenience. They cost about a penny apiece to make, compared with 5 1/2 cents for a paper bag. They take less space at the checkout counter and adapt to odd shapes. Ninety percent of grocers and big discounters use them, Johnson said.

During manufacturing, both types use energy and create pollution, so environmentalists prefer that neither be made and people instead use reusable bags of canvas or other materials.

In general, though, plastic bags are considered more wasteful than paper. They come from petroleum, a nonrenewable natural resource, and are hard to recycle because food and other materials cling so readily to their surfaces. Paper bags are more likely to contain recycled paper and to get recycled themselves.

Plastic bags also are notorious for traveling on the wind, polluting land and water alike. "It's like our graffiti in the river," said Los Angeles Councilman Reyes. Because they do not decompose, the litter can linger for years.

The lack of biodegradability is not, however, an issue when it comes to modern landfills, which are kept "dry" to discourage decomposition and serve largely as giant storage bins.

"The life of a grocery bag is measured in minutes in terms of its useful life," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. "It goes from the store to the car to the house, and then it becomes garbage."

According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the amount of film plastic disposed of statewide grew 20 percent in the past five years. Last year, 1.7 million tons of plastic film were disposed of, including 147,038 tons of grocery and merchandise bags (8.1 pounds per person).

The pileup of plastic has become so vast that the Waste Management Board -- whose reason for existence is to reduce the waste stream -- has begun leaning hard on the plastics industry to take more responsibility for recycling and reducing usage.

The board recently agreed to send to the Legislature a plan calling on manufacturers, supermarkets, recyclers and local governments to work voluntarily to reduce plastic film in the waste stream, said Christine Flowers-Ewing, a coordinator with the board's recycling technology branch.

The plan comes with a tough caveat: If the voluntary approach fails, a fee of 0.4 cents to 1 cent per pound at the wholesale level would be considered.

The plastics industry, under siege from so many corners of California, has begun a campaign of its own: to improve the tarnished image of plastic bags, to encourage recycling and to fight any fees or taxes.

In recent months, the industry formed an advocacy group called the Progressive Bag Alliance, raised $700,000 from various companies and hired public relations experts to fight the attacks. They have good reason to be concerned.

The bags have been banned in some countries, while others are imposing fees. Three years ago, after Ireland set a 15-cent-per-bag fee, the use of such bags fell an astounding 90 percent.

"It's a serious threat," said Tim Shestek, public affairs director for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that includes the American Plastics Council. "The urgency is real."

The industry includes various sectors, not all on the same page.

Shestek represents companies that manufacture plastic resin pellets, which get heated and blown into sheets of plastic film. They are pushing more recycling sites and anti-litter measures, but object to fees or other steps that would reduce the use of bags.

The actual makers of the bags have a slightly softer position.

They also oppose fees. But they recognize the environmental toll of their products and want to reduce wasteful use, even if it means a hit in sales, said Johnson, chair of the Alliance.

In particular, the group sees a problem at the checkout stand and has begun promoting better training of clerks so they stop double-bagging and filling bags only partially.

"We want our product used efficiently and correctly," Johnson said. "It could cost us some sales, probably will. But it won't cost us our business."

For shoppers, the choice between paper and plastic remains highly individual.

Many like the light weight and flexibility of plastic bags, which can be used to line waste baskets or clean litter boxes.

But Kathy Howton, a South Natomas resident who works for the state, finds that loaded plastic bags tend to topple in the car, so she chooses paper bags, then reuses them to hold garbage.

"When I do get plastic bags, I try to find other uses for them," Howton said.

Barbara Bechtold, an urban planner from downtown Sacramento, avoids both, relying instead on reusable canvas bags. It bothers her to see people going home from the store with bags destined for a landfill.

"The effort is so minimal," said Bechtold, who also won't buy bottled water because she finds the packaging wasteful.

Given the way plastic bags have so thoroughly invaded everyday life, the state needs more individuals like Bechtold, said the waste board's Flowers-Ewing. People making choices that benefit not just themselves, but all the rest of us.


--Best choice: Neither. Use reusable canvas or nylon bags to transport your groceries.

--Next best choice: Paper bags. They have more recycled content and are more recyclable. Be sure to reuse them next time you shop.

--If you use plastic bags, recycle them. Go to www.plasticbagrecycling.org, set up by the American Plastics Council. Click on "General Public," then "Search for a Drop-off Location" and type in your ZIP code to find the stores nearest you that accept plastic bags and film.

--Don't assume your curbside recycling program recycles plastic bags. Local programs vary. Sacramento, for example, accepts the bags in its blue curbside bins, but the bags are sent to the landfill during a later sorting process.

--Keep plastic bags clean and dry for recycling. If they have food or other materials clinging, they are hard if not impossible to recycle.

--Think you can't live without plastic grocery bags? Get creative when emptying the litter box or picking up after your dog: Try using an empty chip bag or cereal box liner or fresh-cut lettuce bag destined for the landfill anyway.

--For more information, visit the Californians Against Waste Web site, www.cawrecycles.org. Or contact your local solid waste collection agency.

To see more of The Sacramento Bee, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sacbee.com.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News