"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."

12/28/2007

Plastic Bag Alliance Fights Back

During most of 2007 the news was full of stories from around the world about cities and even entire countries banning or otherwise reducing plastic bags. By the time New York City (where I live) jumped on the bandwagon something had changed. The ban plan had morphed into a wimpy recycling plan, and news articles included quotes from the Progressive Bag Alliance (a lobbying group for the bag manufacturers). The PBA was also heavily quoted in articles about the derailed bag ban in Annapolis, Maryland.
It seems that plasti
c bag manufacturers, their profits threatened, are on the offensive. Their strategy seems to be to limit the discussion to paper vs. plastic, rather than reusables vs. disposables, and to declare that Americans are somehow a breed apart: what works in Europe and elsewhere is somehow not possible here. They promote in-store recycling bins (despite a less than 5% return rate where that has been tried) and claim that plastic is so valuable, recyclers would love to get their hands on it to turn it into new bags or (more likely) plastic lumber for decks and park benches. (I wrote here about the problem with this approach.)
Since lobbyists like the PBA are complicating the issue, I came up with some drawings that I think help clear things up.


Well first, here is the universal recycling symbol. See how it is a closed loop? In this zero-waste model, all materials are recovered; nothing has to be mined, extracted, or later landfilled.




This is my illustration of the PBA type plan. Because the plastic lumber isn't recyclable, it is really just a pit stop in the journey from non-renewable natural resource to landfill.


In reality, most bags would never even be down-cycled into lumber. More than 95% are and will probably continue to be used once and thrown away. (Using it as a trash bag or poop scooper counts as throwing it away, not recycling.)

This is a reusable bag made out of a natural fiber, like cotton or hemp. When it eventually wears out after hundreds of uses, it can be composted, safely buried in your back yard, or recycled into paper. In the waste management hierarchy, this is called source reduction: it prevents a category of trash from being produced in the first place, thereby eliminating the need to manage it at all.


To see a much cooler set of graphics about why we can't continue to consume in a linear way on a finite planet, be sure to watch The Story of Stuff video. See also this excellent article from Salon.com, Plastic Bags are Killing Us.

2 comments:

Videolady said...

I love the drawings! But I still don't know how to deal with the fact that I use my plastic bags to throw away my garbage. Lately I've been saying "No Bag, Please"- but then I run out of garbage bags. Help! Rejin! Help!

xo

Randi
http://www.randicecchine.com

Rejin L said...

I can help you with bags, Randi, because my husband and housemate keep bringing home plenty.
But more to the point, I think this is an example of a problem that can't be solved individually. The best solution I can think of is for us to make less garbage. And the best way to do that is for manufacturers to reduce packaging and to work with retailers to set up a container refilling system, and for municipalities to collect and compost food waste. There would be so much less to throw away, we wouldn't need to worry about what to put it in.
Oh, and Happy New Year!