Contrary to popular belief, plastic bags are not free

DOWNEY - For the past two weeks we have been examining the various impacts of plastic carryout bags. Our analysis has shown that government regulation of plastic bags is a controversial issue, that only a minute percentage is recyclable due to a lack of market demand, that they have become globally pervasive since their general introduction 30 years ago, and that European culture, unlike the United States, had not adopted a practice of carryout bag use prior to the influx of plastic carryout bags.What remains to be explored are cost factors and the larger though more nebulous subject of their impact on public health and well-being, as well as the sticky question of whether or not they should be regulated by government. The potential of a City of Downey ban on plastic bags is of course of particular importance to those reading The Downey Patriot, though it should be made abundantly clear that this issue is not currently under consideration by Downey City Council. These last three areas tend to merge into one another, but for the moment we will focus on the easiest one - namely whether plastic bags are free or inexpensive. First, it is either naive or disingenuous to suggest that plastic carryout bags are free. Their cost is built into the cost of doing the grocery business just as surely as the manager's salary, the bagger's wage or the markup on the broccoli. Even free parking is not free. The cost of plastic bags themselves is, to be sure, a very small fraction of all these costs, perhaps as low for the store as a penny per bag, but the customer pays for them nevertheless. Beyond these nominal costs at the grocery store there are, however, additional expenses not so visible to the consumer. The first is litter cleanup and prevention, which, as we mentioned previously, costs Los Angeles County more than $18 million per year and the state of California more than $375 million per year. Clearly, cleanup and prevention of plastic bag littering is only a small fraction of these overall totals, but as we also mentioned, plastic bags are particularly intransigent in the waste stream. So the cost of cleaning them up is significant. And you and I, the taxpayer, pay for that. There's a third level of expense in handling the waste stream, and that is the cost of landfills. In fact, the largest landfill in the United States is the Puente Hills Landfill, located near the intersection of the 605 and 60 freeways. Though it won't have reached capacity by then, its closure is mandated for November, 2013. Replacing it will be a new program called "Waste-By-Rail," also managed by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which are legally responsible for waste management in L.A. County. Their description of this new waste management resource begins as follows: "as public opposition to siting new or expanding existing disposal facilities near urban areas has grown, sites farther from the Los Angeles Basin have become more desirable, despite the costs associated with longer transport distances." Specifically, expected to begin in mid-2012, waste will be partially processed after arriving by truck at the new "Puente Hills Intermodal Facility," then shipped by train to a landfill 200 miles east of L.A. Again, to be fair, plastic carryout bags represent a fairly small percentage, both by weight and by volume, of this increasingly complex and expensive waste stream, but the government agencies charged with handling all of this waste are particularly concerned, because not only are plastic carryout bags difficult to deal with, as we've already mentioned repeatedly, but their extremely limited typical lifespan brings them under consideration as a product that perhaps the public might learn to do without. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The question here is this: Who's paying for handling all this waste (projected to be about 8,000 tons per day from Puente Hills alone), including those pesky plastic bags, about to travel 200 miles by rail to their final resting place? You guessed it. Lars Clutterham is a Downey resident and charter member of the city of Downey's Green Task Force and Downey Chamber of Commerce's Green Committee.

********** Published: August 18, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 18