Baggage

The city's politicos made the enviros happy by banning plastic bags, but left us with more pollution and cost

According to the Environmental Defense Fund's "paper calculator" — and factoring in the city's requirement that bags be composed of at least 40 percent recycled material — the ecological consequences are staggering. That many paper bags weigh about 5,250 tons, which results in the felling of 72,000 trees, sulfur dioxide emissions of 91,200 pounds, the release of 21.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and the generation of 40 million gallons of wastewater.

In the past two decades, a number of "Life-Cycle Analyses" (LCAs) have measured the "cradle to grave" environmental impact of plastic and paper shopping bags. SF Weekly was unable to track down any that rated paper as being more environmentally beneficial overall. Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).

Several of these LCAs were commissioned by the plastics industry — yet Charles Lardner, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the paper industry does not dispute the studies' findings. And a number of the studies were not connected to the plastics industry. A 2004 analysis by the French retail giant Carrefour found the most environmentally friendly bag to be a heavy-duty reusable plastic sack; paper bags were found to be the worst of all. Regarding so-called "biodegradable plastic," while LCAs differ, several found it to require far more energy to produce and distribute than regular plastic. What's more, it requires the cultivation of vast amounts of corn or potatoes, which are farmed unsustainably using powerful chemicals. The West German, Australian, and Scottish governments weighed the scientific evidence to deduce that a simple elimination of plastic bags in favor of paper ones would be an ecological step backward. This conclusion was duplicated last year in Seattle.

These findings do not much impress Jack Macy and Robert Haley of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, two of the longtime movers and shakers behind the city's quest to quit plastic. Haley notes that "you can always get an LCA to support your view," and brushes it off as "bogus science" irreparably tainted by its connection to industry. The two then touted a 2000 study in Sweden that showed paper bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic ones. This LCA, performed by the firm CIT Ekologik, is something of a security blanket for municipalities hoping to justify a plastic bag ban; officials in Manhattan Beach and Massachusetts have cited it as well. It warrants mentioning, however, that this was not a study of small grocery bags but hulking, 55-pound animal feed sacks. What's more, it too was commissioned by industry: a consortium of European paper bag companies.

When it comes to "bogus science," a helping of it found its way into San Francisco's anti-plastic-bag ordinance. The text refers to the "12 million barrels of oil" required to produce the 100 billion plastic bags Americans use each year. While these figures proliferate on the Internet, neither is verifiable. Even the American Chemistry Council is unsure exactly how many bags Americans use each year, and the notion of oil barrels is curious considering the vast majority of plastic bags produced in this country are derived from natural gas (the industry claims 85 percent of plastic bags used in America are domestically made).

The man claiming credit for this ubiquitous statistic is Vince Cobb, a 42-year-old Chicagoan who sells reusable bags on the Internet. Cobb told SF Weekly he did a back-of-the-envelope calculation cribbing an estimate on American plastic bag use from an old Wall Street Journal article and plugging in the number of British Thermal Units required to create one plastic bag according to a 20-year-old Society of Plastics Industry text. He then searched the Internet to determine the number of BTUs in a barrel of oil.

San Francisco's ordinance also trumpets the much-recited figure that plastic bags are responsible for the yearly deaths of 100,000 marine animals and millions of birds. These figures have utterly no basis in fact, and their worldwide proliferation is the result of what, for lack of a better term, could be described as an epic Internet screw-up. The figure is derived from a 1987 Canadian study claiming that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine birds and mammals died in discarded fishing nets. And yet, when the above passage was reprinted in a 2002 Australian study of plastic bags, the words "fishing nets" were, inexplicably, replaced by "plastic bags." From there, the Internet served as a misinformation superhighway, and the legend became fact. Combined with heartbreaking photographs of bags choking sea turtles and suffocating shorebirds, the statistic gave strength to growing movements to ban the bag — as evidenced by its inclusion in San Francisco's ordinance.

"It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags; the evidence shows just the opposite," Greenpeace marine biologist David Santillo told the Times of London. "With larger mammals, it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis, plastic bags aren't an issue."


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