During a recent meeting about litter in Orangeburg County, a not-so-surprising concept was floated as a solution -- banning plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.
A ban here would not be unique in South Carolina, where coastal communities have instituted ordinances. Such actions are not without controversy – and opponents.
A year ago, the S.C. House passed legislation that would prohibit local governments from passing laws prohibiting the sale of plastic bags. The bill, which did not receive final legislative approval, would put in the hands of the General Assembly the power of regulating the sale of "auxiliary containers."
While local governments argue legislative intervention would violate the Home Rule Act, there is reason for concern about widely varying local laws and the effects they can have.
And there are legitimate reasons to argue that packaging, particularly plastic bags, have gotten a bum rap in the litter debate. They are but a component in a much larger litter problem.
Reporting for greenliving.lovetoknow.com, Georgia-based writer Crystal Schwanke states: “Plastic bags have a bad reputation, but banning them could have some surprising negative effects. A ban could have repercussions on consumer convenience and even the economy without making a truly significant improvement to the environment.”
Citing studies and sources, she makes key points:
• Plastic bag alternatives aren't necessarily better -- Plastic works better than paper or cotton in many situations. Sometime, plastic is reused in the process (such as lining a bathroom trashcan or cleaning up after your dog on a walk).
• Paper lasts longer in landfills -- Paper takes up more room in landfills and doesn't disintegrate rapidly. A SciDev.net article states paper bags take up to nine times more room than plastic and break down at about the same rate.
• Plastic's carbon footprint is better -- University of Oregon chemistry professor David Tyler says plastic bags actually produce less stress on the environment with half the carbon footprint of cotton and paper bags.
• Increased use other plastic bags -- When plastic bags given away for free in stores are banned, there's an increase in the types of plastic bags people can purchase. The plastic in the replacement bags is generally thicker and a bigger threat to the environment.
• Small percentage of the litter problem -- The Reason Foundation concludes plastic bags aren't as big of a litter problem as they seem. They make up less than 1 percent of visible litter, don't block storm drains, make up just .4 percent of municipal waste and don't cut down on litter when banned.
• Reusable bags aren't sanitary -- The University of Arizona reports 97 percent of people using reusable bags are not aware they should wash and sanitize them regularly. Other reports indicate that poses risks of food poisoning from bacteria, mold, yeast and coliform, as well as risks of bacterial skin infections and allergic reactions.
• The cost would hurt the poor -- For someone with a very tight budget, needing to buy bags to carry groceries and other items home could mean less food on the table.
• Plastic bags are cheaper for stores -- In an interview with National Geographic, Robert Batement, president of plastic bag manufacturing company Roplast Industries, says the cost of a plastic bag is 1 cent. Compared to 4 cents per paper bag, plastic is the winner for stores from a budgeting standpoint.
• Economic repercussions -- A plastic bag ban would have an economic impact. A report from the National Center for Policy Analysis finds stores inside ban areas in Los Angeles saw a 6 percent decrease in sales while stores just outside of those areas saw a sales growth of 9 percent over a year.
• Reusable bags aren't reused -- Even when people switch to reusable bags, the bags aren't reused enough to make up for the extra resources and carbon footprint involved in their creation.
• Reusable bags come from overseas -- The National Center for Policy Analysis says at least 95 percent of reusable bags are from overseas. Most come from China.
No one will argue there is a litter problem. And nearly all should agree the bottom line is not the types of litter, it is the people doing the littering. Taking sensible actions to fight the problem is necessary. But there is legitimate reason to argue that banning plastics bags and related containers is not the progressive step it may seem to be.
As Schwanke concludes: “Banning plastic bags in lieu of cotton or paper could have a negative impact on the environment overall, not to mention the inconvenience of limiting reuse of those bags for everyday things like lining trash cans, protecting your belongings or even cleaning up after your dog. In addition, banning plastic bags could leave a significant number of people without jobs and cost individuals, communities and governments money, whether through the purchase of reusable bags or educational programs for the public. Though it may sound like a positive change on the surface, banning plastic bags could actually be detrimental to the environment and the economy.”