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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Commentary: Maybe We Should Ban Paper Bags, Too

By David Pogue

Special to WestportNow

I generally write about technology. But this week, I got to be part of the government process in Westport in a small way, and I thought I’d write up my experience.

See, last week, in my blog, I wrote about how hard it can be to make the right environmental choices. Every product has upstream and downstream ecological costs, and sometimes they’re impossible to calculate. I used, as one key example, the paper-vs.-plastic shopping bag debate.

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of days later, a reader let me know that the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) right here in Westport was considering an outright ban on plastic shopping bags, and that the public would be invited to speak before the vote.

Personally, I can’t stand the thought of what these 500 billion plastic bags are doing every year. On average, you use a plastic shopping bag for *12 minutes*—and then you throw it away. (It’s always driven me crazy when the drugstore clerk tries to give me a plastic bag when all I’m buying is a pack of AA batteries.)

The thing is, you can’t ever really throw one away. In landfills, plastic bags don’t biodegrade; they’ll sit there for 1,000 years.

On the surface, in sun or in water, it’s even worse. The bags break down, all right—into tiny plastic pellets that get eaten by birds and sea life and, of course, kill them.

The best part: after a dead sea animal decays, the plastic particles live on, ready to be eaten by the next generation. In one study, there’s six times as much plastic as plankton, by mass, in the North Pacific (http://tinyurl.com/2w2lua).

Anyway, the hearing was packed. About 15 people got up to speak about the proposed law. Most were Westporters, every single one of whom encouraged the town’s leaders to pass the ban (I was among them).

At one point, a guy from the American Chemical Council (read: the plastics industry) stood up to speak against the ban. He cited, I kid you not, the “Hispanic single mother of three” and the “Afro-American father trying to make ends meet” who would lose their jobs if we stop consuming plastic bags.

(The next speaker, a resident, gave a speech that was right out of a movie screenplay. “There’s only one person in this room who’s been paid to be here,” he said, furious, referring to the plastics guy. “And HE doesn’t walk on our beaches, shop in our stores, or have kids in our schools.”)

I’m generally pretty cynical about government. Plenty of other towns nearby have failed to pass ordinances like this, so I didn’t really expect ours to succeed.

But lo and behold, after almost four hours of public debate, the town’s volunteer governing body passed the ban, 26 to 5. Starting six months from now, there will be no more plastic shopping bags at the cash registers in Westport.

Let the hate mail begin!

Already, there’s anger and unhappiness. In the comments on WestportNow.com, you already can read how some residents are furious. They say that their personal freedoms are being infringed (although, of course, the ordinance doesn’t say YOU can’t use plastic bags—only that stores can’t give them away at the register).

They point to a thousand other environmental steps that could also be taken (true, but why not start somewhere?).

The biggest problem, of course, is that the ordinance doesn’t ban *paper* bags. They’re no environmental saint, either. In fact, it takes more energy to make and ship paper than plastic.

Some residents would have preferred a ban on both paper and plastic. If the goal is for people to just bring canvas bags to the stores, as they do in Europe without batting an eye, that would have been a better law.

Three things, though. First, the ordinance includes a marketing campaign to encourage the use of those reusable bags. (As First Selectman Gordon Joseloff noted at the hearing: Why don’t the grocery stores give them away, emblazoned with their logos? It’s the best kid of free advertising.) So with luck, and education, paper use will decline, too.

Second, plastic’s infinite lifespan makes me consider it a nastier *kind* of environmental damage. Paper bags, at least, are biodegrade. Plastic bags will be with us, ton upon ton, forever.

Finally, you have to start somewhere. The new law likely will be reviewed by the RTM in the future, and it could be repealed or amended as necessary. Maybe paper bags will be part two.

I see this ordinance in the same light as the pooper scooper law, the seatbelt law, bottle deposits, and smoking bans in public places: they’re small inconveniences for the public good.

In the meantime, Westport is now the first municipality on the East Coast to ban plastic bags—in fact, the first one east of California. With luck, the experiment will succeed, and the idea will spread.

As I said at the RTM meeting, we generally think of our American forebears as unsophisticated and naïve—people walking around in black-and-white, with sort of sped-up, jerky movements. They smoked, they didn’t wear seat belts, they used DDT. They didn’t have a clue.

We already know that the plastic bags are a disaster. So why not take any steps we can, no matter how small, no matter how tiny the community, to ensure that our descendants won’t see us as equally clueless?
David Pogue, a Westport resident, is a newspaper technology columnist.


Posted 09/06/08 at 05:06 PM


Comment Policy

Stop and Shop gave away re-usable bags, emblazoned with their logo, quite some time ago. Two of them, free to S&S;card holders. Also, at Stop and Shop, you get a 5-cent discount per re-usable bag that you bring for your groceries. If they’re going that far to encourage the use of re-usable bags, I hardly think they’re going to sue the Town for the plastic bag ban.

Re-usable bags are cheap at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, one or two dollars each and very durable. Whole Foods also gives you a nickel credit for using your own bag. Trader Joe’s and Stew Leonard’s enter you into a contest to win free groceries when you bring your own bags.

I’ve been bringing my own bags to stores (all stores, not just grocery stores) for quite some time now—it’s no big deal. Don’t have to deal with the plastic bags that accumulate like dust bunnies.

Posted by Lee Fleming (Associate Editor/Webmaster) on September 06, 2008 at 07:01 PM | #

It wasn’t just “hate mail” in the comments forum within the plastic ban article. Some were pointing out that paper requires more energy and pollution in the manufacture and transport process (see the EPA’s website).

They also make biodegradable plastic bags.

But like I’ve said before, this has more to do with how you “feel” and less about facts, logic or science. That hearing the other night was full of critical thinkers and scholars debating all the merits of the issue.

Yes there is plenty more that could be done, and hopefully this measure will be enough to reduce their guilt of living in 7,800+ sq. ft. homes while they drive their 3 ton Range Rovers to and from their pilates class.

Posted by John Raho on September 06, 2008 at 07:02 PM | #

I say why stop at just paper bags, let’s ban CO2 as well, make it a fineable offense to produce any…that way all the incessant sniveling from the “feel good crowd” would stop.  Seriously though.. there is no end to these bans. There mere fact that this article now exists is the first step in that direction.  The RTM should be working on a multitude of other issues…taxes and spending for one.  Or how about beautification projects that will have a direct impact on the town, and no this plastic bag ban will do nothing to that end.  Take a drive around town on Saturday or Sunday and count how many plastic bags you see, my hunch….not many.

Posted by Tom Werner on September 06, 2008 at 07:29 PM | #

I heartily agree with David Pogue that we have to start somewhere.  Is it really such an inconvenience to take a few modest measures to preserve resources?  We are no longer clueless as to the damage already done to our planet.  And there are easy ways each of us can make a difference.  My electric power is suppled through Sterling Planet, and is 100% from renewable sources, such as hydropower and wind.  Doesn’t really cost much more.  I drive a hybrid, have switched some light bulbs to the new long-lasting fluorescent models, use air conditioning just enough time each day to keep my house from getting moldy from the humidity, and I turn lights off almost as religiously as my family did when I was a child during the Depression. 

The plastic bag regulation has brought to my attention my needless overuse of bags when I can carry many bulky items without them - not a hardship.  I do use a couple of paper bags per week to hold newspapers for recycling.  It is a shame that we are losing our forests to all these daily papers; perhaps newspapers can cut down some, as The New York Times is doing. I need plastic bags for wet garbage, and would be delighted to replace them with biodegradable carriers. 

Perhaps our town government can help.  How about including magazines, catalogs and other paper goods for recycling?  Right now we have to drive to the dump with them, or throw them out with the wet garbage. 

We can be a saving nation.  I remember collecting silver foil during World War II, and managing with rationing, working together to achieve national goals. Surely government has a leadership role to play in serving our best interests beyond handling security and taxes.  We all care about money, of course, but often public health and welfare measures save money in the long run.  For example, bans on smoking in public places, objected to by some as limiting personal liberty, have saved significant money, by preventing costly illnesses and in keeping interiors clean of smoke scum and tobacco detritus.

We have a wonderful town.  We should lead by setting a great example of informed, public spirited actions. 

Nina Streitfeld

Posted by Nina Streitfeld on September 06, 2008 at 09:26 PM | #

Well, I agree with the plastic bag ban. Only thing is, if you use paper, you might wind up with unwelcome guests. Cock roaches like to reside in paper products! I guess there’s always a down side…

Posted by bob lasprogato on September 06, 2008 at 09:31 PM | #

“How about including magazines, catalogs and other paper goods for recycling?”

I discovered last year that our garbage and recycling pickup in Westport does include the types of paper you mentioned. Check with your service.

Posted by Jerry Kuyper on September 07, 2008 at 02:04 AM | #

David Pogue’s comments at the RTM hearing on Tuesday night were humorous (I’m waiting for the NYTimes column he promised if they banned plastic bags) and thought-provoking.  What amazes me about the negative comments on WestportNow (some did sound like hate mail on Wednesday) is that not a single Westport citizen got up to oppose the ban at the meeting, and opposition was heard only by “spokespersons” from the plastic bag industry and a supermarket organization. 

As I have found out, and some writers above mentioned as well, once we TRY to take a recyclable bag into stores, we find out it isn’t that hard.  Over the next six months, we can all start with baby steps seeing if we can unhook from our dependency on a bag for every little purchase.

Posted by Longtime Westporter on September 07, 2008 at 03:07 AM | #

Westport’s plastic grocery bag ban went through even though it’s based on some big fallacies and faulty logic. Some commenters here have asked, “Where were the opponents on Tuesday night?”
I was an opponent who was there but did not speak. Touting my expertise, I had written to the District 4 sponsors about technical fallacies in January. In July I wrote to and appeared before the Environment Committee to point out technical and other fallacies and use Life Cycle Analysis data to argue that a shift to paper bags would be environmentally damaging.  Days before the RTM meeting, I presented arguments against the ordinance in an email to each member. But in Tuesday night’s atmosphere,  I didn’t feel like being shouted down.
For about 20 years I was a technical/market analyst specialized in packaging materials. In addition to my own publications, I was Editor-in-Chief of the first Encyclopedia of Packaging Technology.
Here are a few comments now: 
Even though plastic ocean debris is comprised primarily of fishing nets and line, and bags hardly appear in inventories, Westport plans to reduce ocean debris by banning bags.
Even though the claim that plastic bags kill thousands of marine animals and millions of sea birds is untrue (the numbers pertained to fishing tackle), Westport plans to protect marine life by banning bags.
Even though the plastic particles (nurdles) that do pose a threat to marine life are dumped in the sea by industrial companies, Westport plans to protect marine life by banning consumer bags.
Even though Westport burns its trash, ban supporters keep repeating that bags don’t degrade in a landfill.
Even though the bags are made of non-toxic polyethylene plastic, supporters keep using words like toxic particles, toxic fumes, dangerous chemicals.
Even though polyethylene bags are made primarily from natural gas (not oil), supporters have implied that the ban would reduce our dependency on foreign oil.
Even though the stated intent of the ordinance is to increase the use of cloth bags, it will inevitably increase the use of throwaway paper bags because the ordinance allows that . 
Even though paper-bag litter degrades and polyethylene doesn’t, paper bags are environmentally inferior to polyethylene bags in every other way.
Even though Reduce is #1 in the waste-management three-Rs hierarchy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), Westport’s waste stream will increase because paper bags weigh about 9x more, and take up about 13x more space. 
Even though the Oakland CA ban was struck down in court because insufficient consideration was given to its Environmental Impact, Westport can move ahead because Connecticut doesn’t have strong Environmental Impact requirements. 
Marilyn Bakker

Posted by Marilyn Bakker on September 07, 2008 at 01:29 PM | #

I must say, Marilyn Bakker makes some great points.  Highlights how, in our desire to do something, anything that will give us a sense of satisfaction, we can wind up doing things that actually run counter to our intentions. 

I’m not a fan of bans on most things. Seems like an intrusion on our liberties. That said, I do hope that this is a catalyst for our creating better, more environmentally attuned, habits.

Posted by Ian Edward on September 07, 2008 at 01:53 PM | #

I appreciate Marilyn’s feedback, some of which I knew, but I do wish she had gotten up to speak.  Some of the RTM members might have changed their minds. That is what democracy is all about.  Marilyn, you would not have been shouted down if you had simply shared what information you had.

Everyone is in 100% agreement that switching our addiction to have a paper bag now for every little item we buy (how about just taking the items out to the car in our hands?) is NOT good.  But can anyone who is against the ban offer a different solution of how to encourage people to use recyclable bags?  At least this ban has people talking and perhaps making an attempt to bring a bag with them into each store.

If anyone has another idea of how to encourage this without stomping on anyone’s freedoms, I am sure the town would love to know.

This isn’t a perfect solution, but it was not proposed by do-gooders who aren’t environmentally astute.  As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  So if we try this and it doesn’t work, the RTM will vote to rescind the ban.  But let’s think positively and please give it a try!

Posted by Longtime Westporter on September 07, 2008 at 02:34 PM | #

I pass on paper or plastic bags for small items now.

Reading these comments has convinced me that I should request neither paper nor plastic bags for anything I buy. Ban both if you want. I’ll carry my own totes. I’m ready, and I think it would be a good thing.

Pogue raise a good point about many products and how their manufacturers deal with recycling. Other writers point out the irony of refusing plastic bags but driving gas guzzling SUV’s. Schools and town offices could lead the way with water-saving, plastic bottle/paper/can recycling, etc. measures.  Town vehicles could adopt a no-idling policy and gradually switch to alternate and/or hybrid fuels. The schools should start to adopt energy saving and recycling policies. The town’s youngsters certainly will be among the first to point out hypocrisies.

Maybe Westport Now could provide some links so we’d know which are the “greenest” computers, appliances, autos, etc., what are the best methods of recycling, where can energy be best saved..?

Posted by werner liepolt on September 07, 2008 at 11:45 PM | #

Our kids are way ahead of us on this.  (Wonder who’s the youngest person to be part of this thread!)

Posted by John Karrel on September 08, 2008 at 12:38 AM | #

I may be the youngest, I’m 60.

I’ve been making a effort to use reusable bags for 35 years. I think I reused a Trader Joe’s bag for a whole year but I can’t prove it.

Unfortunately my teenagers aren’t way ahead on this issue.

Posted by Jerry Kuyper on September 08, 2008 at 12:58 AM | #

But these are great ideas AND thank you to Werner Liepolt to be willing to try to carry a recyclable bag and to encourage the town being green.  (I think Gordon Joseloff could tell us all the things Westport is doing.)  And there were a lot of savvy teenagers at the meeting last Tuesday, so the kids are learning too.

Posted by Longtime Westporter on September 08, 2008 at 01:09 AM | #

werner liepolt: “The schools should start to adopt energy saving and recycling policies. The town’s youngsters certainly will be among the first to point out hypocrisies.”

As one of those youngsters I’d be glad to. I’m a junior at Staples and frankly I’m appalled at some of the environmental atrocities that occur there. The air conditioning in the building is set much lower then it should be and most of us are freezing throughout the day, while teachers have no control over the temperatures in their classrooms; the thermostats do nothing. Styrofoam plates are used in the cafeteria every day for lunch, and the hundreds of aluminum cans and plastic water bottles, smoothie cups, and cutlery, which are perfectly recyclable, are chucked in the trash rather than in one of the recycling bins in the cafeteria. Although to be fair, you’d be hard pressed to find one-there are maybe three in the entire cafeteria, as opposed to the trash cans every other table and the administrators roaming the cafeteria all through the lunch periods dragging a trash can and dumping everything in. The many computers in the school are running all day instead of going into sleep mode after a period of inactivity, not to mention all of the paper that is wasted on a daily basis, and the buses that idle after school despite the “No Idling” signs posted. And of course there are the hundreds of students who drive their BMW’s and Lexus’ to school every day, even if they live just down North Avenue, but it’d be stupid to think we could change that.

Now I readily admit that I’m not perfect, but I’ve been trying to increase my eco-friendliness. At home I always turn off unnecessary lights and shut off an un-used, running, computer. We’re on a wait-list for a Prius, and seeing as we only recycle plastics one and two we save other types of plastic to give to my sister, who lives in Boston, where they recycle every type. We also compost and save all organic waste.

Taking simple steps to reduce your carbon foot-print isn’t that hard to do. While I’m still not decided on the paper-vs-plastic debate, the whole thing can be settled by spending $2 on a reusable bag. It’s not like Westporters can’t afford it, and the benefits to the environment are plenty. I also think that the town should be investing more in renewable energy, such as placing solar panels on the schools and other municipal buildings, and more of the town’s vehicular fleet should consist of hybrid and alternative energy cars. Whether or not this ban actually helps the environment, there are several good things about it—for one, the members of the RTM had the best interests of the environment at heart. They believed that this ban would have a positive environmental impact, and whether or not it does it is at least a step in the right direction. Now if only we can do more- as a community, a state, a country, and a planet, to decrease carbon emissions and start reversing climate change.

Posted by Robbie Feinberg on September 08, 2008 at 04:42 AM | #

We should also look towards increasing the recyclables to include other plastics besides those labelled #1 and #2.

Posted by Charlie Haberstroh on September 08, 2008 at 11:16 AM | #

Our future is in safe hands with young people like Robbie Feinberg around.  I would really appreciate it if someone would make sure that the Board of Education and Supt. Landon receive this thoughtful comment with all the easy-to-start hints (in case they don’t read WestportNow).  I don’t have students in school so don’t know how to pass along the ideas.

Posted by Longtime Westporter on September 08, 2008 at 12:19 PM | #

Bottles made of resins other than #1 and #2 (except maybe #5) wouldn’t be recycled, partly because there are too few of them. Here’s what the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers says:

Given the established plastic bottle reclaiming infrastructure, bottles made from resins other than PET, HDPE, or PP are generally likely to introduce contamination, or otherwise have a negative impact on the current postconsumer plastic bottle recycling stream and should be avoided unless compatibility in reclaiming, processing and end-product manufacturing can be demonstrated

Posted by Marilyn Bakker on September 08, 2008 at 01:10 PM | #

One problem with such a ban is that while it addresses a problem, i.e. with litter, it in all likelihood it will create a real problem with pollution.  This is, as Ms. Bakker points out, due to the demands in its “life cycle” that paper places on the environment, as opposed to plastic.

I agree with Ms. Smith that Ms. Bakker’s points are all well made.

Since the start of the year, if not earlier, I’ve been thinking about this.  After an RTM meeting last December of January, one of the sponsors handed me a folder of information and asked my opinion about a ban.  After some research, it became quite clear that there would likely be negative environmental side effects.  Additional information has only confirmed this concern.  I represent District 1 on the RTM and voted against this ban, essentially for this reason, and shared research-based information during the debate.

To their credit, the proponents were very well organized.  Yet, with all due respect, I think that the concept of a ban may have resonated with many people’s desire to “do something” to help our environment.  It seems a bit, in retrospect, as if a problem were identified and the solution decided upon prior to a full investigation of related and likely side effects, including negative ones, upon the environment. 

Also, in keeping with our tradition of hearing from all points of view, there were representatives of organizations from both sides of the issue present at the meeting Tuesday night.

Re banning all types of carry-out bags:  Changes in habits, to be lasting, are best phased in over time, with both popular support and understanding.  “To every reaction there is an equal an opposite reaction”—and I submit that this is true not only in physics but in the ways that people behave.  We’re talking about people and their habits.  To be fully accepted, any change should have widespread popular support.

While we’re on the general subject, could we all please turn up the thermostats just a bit during the summer and turn them down during the winter?  That would be so good!

Posted by Judy Starr on September 08, 2008 at 03:12 PM | #

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