Plastic bags and freedom

DOWNEY - Apparently the founding fathers overlooked the plastic carryout bag as a fundamental symbol of human freedom.Though that comment was sarcastic (and intentionally anachronistic, for those who care), it throws into relief a common theme in the recurring debate over the efficacy of plastic carryout bags, ever since a few people, and then a few governments, began to wonder if the plastic carryout bag was such a good idea. The gist of this argument seems to be that plastic carryout bags are convenient, harmless, cost-free amenities and that government, of whatever size, infringes upon the freedom of its citizens to the extent it proposes to regulate, curtail, or outright ban their use. Unfortunately, there are complications. What may be convenient to the individual user turns out to be a big problem for those charged with keeping clean the neighborhoods, cities, countryside, highways and waterways--namely government, whether it be municipal, county, state or federal. Here are some numbers: in Los Angeles County people put into use 12,000 plastic carryout bags PER MINUTE. That adds up to 6 billion bags per year. The global figures are even more staggering, at about 1 million bags per minute and more than 500 billion bags per year. Furthermore, plastic bags are particularly intractable as they enter the litter stream because they tend to become airborne or carried away by water, ending up in places that are especially difficult to clean up. Los Angeles County, for example, spends more than $18 million per year to clean up and prevent litter, of which plastic bags are a significant component. Public agencies in the state of California spend more than $375 million per year. (These costs, of course, come back to the citizen in the form of taxes, but we'll return to that thought in a moment.) Yet this is not the biggest problem with plastic carryout bags and really amounts to only the tip of the iceberg. Recyclable plastic is manufactured from one of six different petroleum-based resin formulae. (There is a seventh hybrid category that includes other combinations, including natural constituents.) The primary resin choice for plastic carryout bags is the second category, high density polyethylene, which may appear on bags alongside the triangular recycle symbol as #2HDPE. Entirely aside from how diligently you or I return our plastic bags for recycling, there is simply insufficient feasibility, cost-effectiveness and demand in the marketplace for recycling them. Even the rosiest, most optimistic estimates put plastic carryout bag recycling at only 5%. More likely it's in the 1-3% range. In other words, only one to three lucky bags in a hundred have the good fortune to be recycled into something else. Part of the reason for this nominal rate of recycling is that plastic carryout bags behave just as badly around the sorting mechanisms employed to separate various types of recycling as they do in the litter stream. Specifically, they get stuck in the machines and can only be removed manually, adding significantly to processing costs. Secondly, the various resin types must be assiduously kept separate or their properties become compromised, leaving them essentially "contaminated" and no longer suitable for remanufacture. Thirdly, that lucky plastic bag is unlikely to come back in its next life as even another plastic bag, because a significant percentage of virgin plastic is required in the manufacturing process to confer on plastic carryout bags the properties that make them convenient in the first place. So plastic carryout bags are primarily not REcycled, but are DOWNcycled into other products neither as ubiquitous nor as marketable. Here we have discussed only one aspect of the issues surrounding the use of plastic carryout bags. In coming weeks I hope to address other ramifications, including their history, government regulation, and whether or not they are ultimately cost-free and harmless. 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 04, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 16