Monday, April 07, 2008

Paper Or Plastic? Seattle Officials Say Neither!

Apr 4: On April 2, Seattle, Washington's Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin proposed a 20-cent “green fee” on all disposable shopping bags at the city’s grocery, drug and convenience stores. They said a recent city-sponsored report determined that both paper and plastic are harmful to the environment. The proposal also calls for a ban on foam containers in the food service industry. If adopted by the City Council, the waste prevention measures would take effect Jan. 1, 2009. Nickels and Conlin said the bag fee and foam ban will cut down on waste, reduce the use of environmentally harmful plastics and cut the production of greenhouse gases.

Mayor Nickels said, “The answer to the question ‘paper or plastic’ is neither -- both harm the environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us. The best way to handle a ton of waste is not to create it. This proposal is all about forming new habits. Taking a reusable bag to grocery stores and pharmacies is a simple thing that has an enormous impact.”

On April 4, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said the Seattle proposals would will have negative consequences on the local environment, the economy and the school system. ACC said plastic recycling is a superior alternative for the environment and for the community’s economic health. ACC encouraged the City of Seattle to join a growing number of cities and states by supporting plastic recycling programs for bags and food containers.

ACC indicated in a release that plastic bags are a good choice for the environment. It takes less than half of the energy to make them than typical alternatives, and likewise, they generate less than half the greenhouse gases of typical alternatives. Increased recycling is the answer. Sharon Kneiss, vice president of ACC’s Products Division said, “We are seeing a trend for municipalities nationwide to creatively employ existing resources to reduce waste, improve sustainability and achieve broader environmental goals. Across the nation, from California to New York City, progressive leaders are choosing plastic bag recycling because it makes sense for the environment and the economy.”

A release from Mayor Nickels indicated that Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) estimates 360 million disposable bags are used in the city every year, most made of plastic. Almost 75 percent of these come from the city’s 575 grocery, drug and convenience stores (out of a total 3,600 retail and restaurant businesses). While Seattleites have a good record of recycling paper bags, most plastic ends up in landfills. But paper bags will also be subject to the fee because, taking into account the environmental costs of logging and shipping, they are actually worse for the planet.

According to the proposal the city will set aside $1 million to distribute these bags and promote their advantages. Retailers will keep 5-cents of every bag to cover administrative costs. Retailers grossing less than $1 million annually will keep the entire 20-cent fee. Charging a fee for disposable bags will cut the number of throw-away bags coming out of grocery, drug and convenience stores by an estimated 70 percent or more according to the city’s analysis and will reduce the use of disposable shopping bags in Seattle overall by more than 50 percent. By preventing the manufacture of 184 million bags a year, Seattle will cut greenhouse gas production by nearly 112,000 tons over a 30-year period. A similar fee in Ireland achieved a 90 percent reduction in use from 325 to 23 bags per person per year.

ACC points out, however, that the tax on plastic bags in Ireland reduced plastic grocery bag use by 90% but increased overall plastic use by 400% as residents purchased new plastic bags instead of reusing grocery bags. They also said that retailers in Ireland report the loss of 450 wire baskets and carts per month by retailer on average -- a loss of about 24 million euros (about $39 million USD) annually. And, the tax has led to a significant increase in ‘push outs’ (shoppers filling their carts and walking straight out without paying) at a cost to retailers of 10 million euros ($17.2 million USD) annually.

To smooth the transition in Seattle, the proposal calls for establishing business advisory committees representing the retail and restaurant sectors. In addition, the city will help food service businesses work together for lower prices on new compostable products. Seattle expects to collect about $10 million annually from the green fee. About $2 million will be spent to promote the switch to reusable bags, including the distribution of free bags to low income families and those on fixed incomes. The rest of the money, about $8 million, will go toward waste prevention and recycling programs and environmental education programs.

A study recently conducted by Herrera Environmental for Seattle indicates that all disposable paper and plastic bags have significant energy, climate change, wastewater, litter and water quality impacts on the region’s environment -- although plastic is especially damaging to marine animals and shore birds. The Herrera study examined the life cycle environmental impact of disposable shopping bags and found the overall impact of paper bags was four times worse than that of an equal number of plastic bags (for all categories weighted equally), and worse in every category except litter and marine litter. The Mayor indicated that banning plastic bags but not paper would push stores and shoppers to use more paper bags, resulting in significantly greater greenhouse gas generation.

Access a release from the Seattle Mayor with links to additional information including a fact sheet, report executive summary and a FAQ document (
click here). Access a release from ACC with links to more information on plastics and to the ACC plastic bag recycling website (click here). [*Solid, *Energy, *Climate]