The Heavyweight Fight Over Shopping Bags

Updated August 2014

Plastic Bag Confetti.jpg

Why Should We Care?
To be honest, I didn’t really get the environmental furor over plastic bags, AT FIRST! What really has opened my eyes is the enormous problem of plastic litter. You see it everywhere and it never seems to go away. That’s because unlike paper, plastic doesn’t biodegrade and can last for hundreds of years. Recently we’ve learned of “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” a floating heap of mostly plastic litter, twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Plastic litter washing into the ocean via storm drains, rivers and streams largely created it. The photo above shows a disintegrating plastic shopping bag on the bank of Los Gatos Creek, which flows into San Francisco Bay. The disgusting picture below is of the Los Angels River after a winter rainstorm. (Photo courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation)

What you don’t see is the plastic confetti that is floating under the surface of the water. Recent research expeditions by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Project Kaisei have found plastic, from very large to ultra-fine, in nearly every sampling trawl taken in the Pacific. While plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photo degrades, in sunlight, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces. I saw this first hand this year when drought conditions created very low water levels at a local reservoir. Walking the dry lakebed we collected buckets full of sunken plastic & glass bottles and aluminum cans. There were also many plastic bags in the mud including fishing supply bags, ice bags, shopping bags and produce bags. Often when I would pick one up it would partially disintegrate into hundreds of little pieces, impossible to pick up. When the rains come this winter, those pieces will float downstream into the Pacific Ocean, and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Efforts to capture floating debris like litter booms on rivers or beach & stream cleanups can capture some of the larger items, but the confetti is here to stay.

This photo shows a jar of plastic confetti from a Pacific trawl sample by Project Kaisei in August 2009. (photo by A. Crawley courtesy of Project Kaisei) The plastic confetti will continue to disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces entering the food chain, poisoning marine wildlife and eventually humans. I fear that we’ve created a plastics time bomb that will last for centuries.

"Ban the Bag" Action Heats Up in California
When San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to ban plastic bags at grocery stores and pharmacies in 2007, many cities and local governments woke up to the serious issue of plastic litter, pollution and waste. Unfortunately the plastics industry woke up to their business threat. As other cities started to jump on the bandwagon the plastics industry countered with lawsuits. They gained early success blocking bans in Oakland and Manhattan Beach, by getting them overturned in California courts. This caused many other California cities to pause on this issue rather than fight, but the tide is now turning.

Plastics Industry Rallies to Win Round One
Through an organization, formed in June 2008, the plastics industry aggressively fought back. Ironically they used a 1970s California environmental law that was designed to protect the environment, to support their position. The California Environmental Quality Act required cities to perform an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before approving development projects. claims that paper bags, the alternative to plastic bags, are more harmful to the environment than plastic. We wrote a detailed article on Paper vs. Plastic Bags earlier this year, and it’s a very debatable argument. Arguing that plastic shouldn’t be banned without environmental review, they were able to convince judges that cities should commission an EIR before enacting a plastic bag ban. With those reports costing up to $100,000 many cities dropped the idea rather than fight back.

In the past 16 months, lawsuits or legal objections were filed in California against proposed plastic bag bans in Oakland, Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County, Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, San Diego, Mountain View, Morgan Hill, San Jose and Encinitas. You can view the litigation details on the website. They obviously have the massive punching strength of the chemical and oil industries behind them.

“Scrappy” Cities Come Back to Win Round Two
Now, in late 2009 we’re seeing a flurry of action. In September Palo Alto became the second Bay Area city to implement a ban on plastic bags from local grocery stores, despite the lawsuit.

San Jose’s City Council has taken it a big step further with a key vote on September 22. They’ve approved a ban on both plastic and paper bags at all retailers, effective 2011. This action was smartly designed to thwart the legal argument that the plastics industry made in getting early bans overturned. It applies to both plastic and paper bags and they will commission an EIR before the law goes into effect. Hopefully this will take away the key legal punch that has been using.

In mid-October the San Francisco Supervisor who spearheaded the original 2007 plastic bag ban proposed extending the ban to paper bags along with a mandatory 10-cent credit from retailers for reusable bags in San Francisco. Cities are starting to see the real point about disposable single use bags and packaging. Both paper and plastic are bad, as is all single use packaging!

National Retailers Jump into the Ring for Round Three
Local grocery stores have given 3 to 10-cent credits for bringing your own reusable bags for a few years. Now, all 1700 Target stores nationwide will be giving a 5-cent credit for each reusable bag. They are the first major discount retailer to implement a nationwide bag credit program. The program officially launches on November 1, but online chatter indicates that stores are already giving the credit.

CVS Pharmacy has announced a bag credit program in conjunction with its ExtraCare customer loyalty program. Members who join will get a Green Bag Tag. You swipe the tag when you shop and don’t use a carryout bag, by either bringing reusable bags or carrying out the merchandise without a bag. For every four “tag swipes” you will receive a $1 coupon. CVS has 7000 locations nationwide.

Walmart's Potential Knockout Punch Has Been Postponed
The Sacramento Bee reported on October 20, 2009 that Walmart’s Folsom store would begin a long-term trial of not offering any carryout bags. You must either bring your own bags or buy low cost reusable bags at the checkout counter. The trial was to start on October 25, and run in several California locations through 2010.

Just two days later The Bee reported that the trial has been postponed until at least January. It turns out that the trial was to run in three stores, Folsom, Citrus Heights and Ukiah. A Walmart spokeswoman said “the company decided that launching the reusable bag-only program just before the holiday shopping season would skew the test results.” Public sentiment on the proposed trial was split, with many very negative comments posted on various news websites. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has set a goal of reducing their plastic bag usage 33% by 2013.

2014 UPDATE:  In the five years since our original article tremendous progress has been made.  California has been the leader with nearly 120 cities and 10 counties issuing plastic bag ordinances.  Washington state has 12 municipalities with ordinances followed by Texas with 10.  Across the nation 18 states and the District of Columbia now have cities with ordinances.

California should become the first to have a statewide plastic bag ordinance very soon.  Senate Bill 270 passed both the Assemble and Senate in late August 2014 and sits on Governor Brown's desk for signature.  The bill appeared to be flying through with solid support until a frenzied eleventh-hour effort  by industry lobbyists nearly killed the bill. As usual, a flurry of punches at the bell made it a nail biter.  The San Jose Mercury sums it up well in this editorial.

This Fight Will Go Twelve Rounds!
While the early city and county bans have focused on plastic carryout bags. The focus needs to be much broader, on all disposable bags and even further into plastic packaging wraps and containers, which are equally a problem.

If you look at the number of plastic bags in our groceries, it’s many times the few bags that you get at the checkout counter. Let’s take a look at our typical, twice weekly, trip to the grocery store. Starting in the produce department, every different fruit or vegetable gets a plastic bag. We can easily consume 6 to 10 bags, just in produce. If you include other pre-sealed plastic bags containing breads, dry beans, pastas and other dry goods, a $50 trip to the grocery store can easily generate a dozen plastic bags. While the reusable carryout bags are a good start, it’s time to take another step forward to reusable produce and dry goods bags. Unfortunately many of the big grocery and warehouse stores package almost everything in plastic. Trader Joe’s and COSTO are prime examples. We are re-evaluating what we buy at these stores due to plastic packaging.

Reusable Produce Bags

We’ve been using reusable carryout bags for awhile, but never had a good solution for the many produce bags and other plastic bags we would bring home. We now have one, a family of organic cotton produce bags in a wide range of sizes. There are two types, a mesh bag for fruits and vegetables and a solid muslin bag for produce, greens, bulk foods, grains and even flour. They're like a mini version of the old cloth flour sack that Grandma would reuse by unstitching the bag and make into a dishtowel.

These bags are available on the Simple Ecology Shop. We have found that a half dozen mesh and muslin bags totally eliminate the need for the plastic produce bags. With the reusable bags, we’ve also started looking at how items are prepackaged, opting for bulk goods and breads not packaged in plastic. On many items these bags can save you money by buying bulk items instead of prepackaged.

Five Simple Ways to Eliminate Plastic Bags
We’ve compiled a short list of simple actions that you can take. It’s time to start thinking about your plastics consumption!

  • Bring reusable carryout bags to the grocery store instead of using paper or plastic bags.

  • Don’t forget to use them at other stores like pharmacies, discounters, department stores, consumer electronics, hardware and many more.

  • Buy unpackaged produce with reusable produce bags. Avoid pre-packaged produce in plastic bags.

  • Buy bulk foods with reusable bags where possible. Many stores have a great selection of bulk foods such as beans, pastas, oatmeal, popcorn, dried fruits, etc. You’ll also save money here.

  • Shop at farmers markets or stores with open produce bins using reusable bags to minimize product packaging.