Ban the Bag?



May 15, 2008

plastic bag“Before you attempt to trash the entire plastic bag industry because it’s the latest politically correct thing to do, do a little homework and you will find that the alternatives come with significant environmental and energy concerns.”

Richard Friesen is president of Big M Plastics in Lethbridge, Alberta. In this compelling article – written for ARPA Canada readers – Friesen dispels some of the myths surrounding the recent fad of “banning the bag” in communities across the country. As he persuasively explains, some efforts sound admirable and stewardly but we must be careful to do our homework before jumping on the bandwagon. There are reasons why plastic bags are being used so much. Let’s not be too quick to ignore these reasons.

Plastic Bags and the Alternatives

By Richard Friesen 05/13/2008

Many people are joining interest groups with numerous different goals, such as stopping the seal harvest, saving the Amazon rain forest, declaring the polar bear a endangered animal and as of late – getting on the bandwagon to become the person responsible for getting their town council to ban plastic. I don’t necessarily disagree with all of the causes out there. It’s just that many of the interest groups are plunging head first into an area with religious zeal and not having the slightest idea of the consequences that may happen as a result of their activity.

One example is the bio-fuel industry. There are two sides to that issue and if you think that promotion of bio-fuel is only positive, guess again. The whole bio-fuel industry has a large negative fall out, such as creating shortages of food and escalating food prices.

I am all for the preservation of our environment and God expects His people to take care of what He has given us. I also believe that God has given us intelligence to be able to come up with products such as plastic. Our responsibility is to use our talents wisely and be good stewards of our planet.

When a person decides to join an advocacy group or lobby group, they need to do themselves a favor and do their homework first. To call for the complete ban of plastic is outrageously short sighted. Few people would go to that extreme and call for a complete ban and instead usually prefer to ban products that least inconvenience themselves. Store checkout bags are a good example. Most consumers wouldn’t actually call for the ban of produce bags but only checkout bags even though checkout bags are a very small percentage of plastic bags being used. Virtually every item in the bakery section or produce section comes packaged in a plastic bag. Is this the plastic that people want banned or is it just the plastic that would not inconvenience them if they had to do without it?

What is most discrediting to some special interest groups are their unbelievable claims. I have read local newspaper articles claiming that when plastic bags are disposed of in a landfill, they will ooze toxins for hundreds of years to come. Such a claim is utterly false and yet gets printed in an editorial as if there were some truth to it. Plastic grocery bags are manufactured from polyethylene (PE). PE is the same material that Tupperware is made from. The reason PE is the preferred material used for food handling is because it is totally inert and has no added chemicals that are toxic or will leach into food substances. It is FDA approved for food handling and, unlike paper or cloth, will not promote growth of bacteria and therefore food can be safely stored in PE bags or containers

I heard on talk radio just the other day a guest saying that a plastic bag has a life of thousands of years. That is quite the statement. In reality, plastic bag left in sunlight will disintegrate in less then six months and no toxins will ooze out of it. Consumers will pay extra to get one or two years out of a bag by adding UV protection to it, but after a couple of years, that bag too will totally disintegrate and all that it leaves behind is carbon and hydrogen, the building blocks of life. Some landfills are like time capsules. With the right environment, plastic film can be preserved for long periods of time. But, researchers have also found landfills that have preserved newspapers from the 1960’s and you could still read the print. Plastic bags are probably one of the least dangerous items you will find in a landfill since nothing will leach into the earth, other than carbon and hydrogen.

There are numerous other advantages of plastic versus cloth or paper.

Paper bags require 425% more energy to manufacture then a PE bag. PE recycled bags, when incinerated properly, are an excellent fuel source that has twice the BTUs per pound then that of coal and leaves no toxins behind.

Oxy-biodegradable PE bags are available that will totally disintegrate in landfills in less then eighteen months. The additives used to speed up degrading are FDA approved for food storage.

Studies show that even readily degradable items are not degrading in some landfills. PE products are a stable ingredient in landfills. They are non toxic and do not give off leachate or methane gas. Once buried in a landfill, plastic is far less likely to contribute to the production of toxic air emissions than other landfill materials. By weight slightly more then 7% of landfill waste is plastic.

In North America, PE is produced as a byproduct from natural gas. If all demand for PE disappeared by banning plastic, we would still have the byproduct since we all depend on natural gas.

Unlike paper which is produced by large multinational companies, PE bags are manufactured by many smaller manufacturers close to the market and don’t require to be shipped nearly as far as paper or cloth bags. A paper grocery bag weighs 140lbs per 1000 compared to 19 lbs per 1000 for a comparable plastic bag and therefore shipping charges are substantially less per bag. In the distribution of bags, one truckload of plastic bags is equivalent to seven truckloads of paper bags, thus the distribution of the plastic bags consumes substantially less energy then the paper or cloth bag distribution.

When PE bags are recycled, all the resin of the bag is recovered and no chemical needs to be extracted. It requires only 17 BTUs to recycle a plastic bag compared to 1440 BTUs to recycle a paper bag. In PE bag manufacturing plants, the internally generated waste is recycled and manufactured into garbage bags.

Imagine going shopping in the grocery store and not being able to put your pastries and produce in a plastic bag. Any other type of bag will promote the growth of bacteria. From a health perspective there is no better way to store foodstuff. Plastic enables the consumer to see what is in the bag. We all look at the items through the plastic to see how fresh it is or what it looks like when we buy it.

America cuts down millions of trees per year to produce its paper bags. That contributes substantially to greenhouse gases as well as depleting forests that contribute to the prevention of greenhouse gases. In the production of paper, enormous amounts of water are used and polluted during the process. Large amounts of chemicals are used in pulp production.

The simple facts are that from an economic standpoint and as a hygiene and health issue, nothing will ever take the place of a plastic bag. I am always grateful when the sandwich makers at the sub shop slip on plastic gloves instead of cloth gloves to make my sandwich. The cloth bag is great for carrying your cans of beans to the car but would you really put a deli sandwich in a cloth bag? You would probably put it into a plastic bag first and then into your cloth bag.

It is the latest fad to buy a two dollar cloth bag to carry groceries to the car but if you paid that for a plastic bag instead of using a three cent bag, you would also get a real tough bag that would last you for years and would be a lot safer since plastic does not promote the breeding of germs like cloth does and unlike cloth, it would still be recyclable. Cloth bags come with other down sides too. What type of cloth is being used? If the bag is made from cotton, how many trees were cut down in the Amazon Rain Forest to grow the cotton? If it’s a polyester bag, you have accomplished nothing, since polyester is also plastic. Most fabric bags are made in third world countries, which is probably a good thing unless they are made in child sweatshops.

A letter writer in one of the local papers blamed plastic for causing malaria in Africa. The writer, like most people wanting to ban something, has not thought things through very carefully. He is completely wrong. Plastic is not responsible for malaria in Africa. Africa was almost rid of malaria when special interest groups got the governments to ban DDT. DDT according to these people was causing birds to have weak eggshells and therefore a high mortality rate. So DDT was banned. Millions of people have directly been infected with malaria because of the DDT ban. Now they are blaming it on plastic?

Here is a recap of just some of the advantages of plastic over cloth or paper.

– PE is a byproduct of natural gas

– It is totally inert and FDA approved for food storage

– PE bags are seven times lighter then paper bags which saves massive amounts of energy to produce

– Distribution is a fraction of the cost of cloth or paper because of its light weight

– It’s clear so you can see what is inside the bag

– It’s inexpensive to recycle

– No trees are cut down to make the PE bag

– No rivers are polluted to make the PE bag

– Bacteria is much less likely to attach itself to the plastic then paper or cloth and therefore more hygienic

– PE bags keep food dry unlike cloth or paper

– Try scooping up dog poop with paper or cloth

– The selling price is substantially less

We have to be careful when we call for the ban of one product in the favor of another without knowing the facts. The suggestion that everybody switch to cloth bags is a very impractical and an expensive alternative. Cloth cannot be used for food storage safely, is extremely bulky and expensive to ship compared to plastic and requires substantially more energy to manufacture. Plastic grocery store bags can be reused many times.

I like a clean environment just like anti-plastic advocates do. The problem is with irresponsible people who litter. When I grew up, before the days of plastic bags, we had more litter in the ditches and roadsides then we do now. People discarded glass drink bottles and paper products without a thought. But thanks to anti-littering laws, things have changed for the positive. It is the education of people about the use of products that is needed, not the banning of non-toxic products.

Before you attempt to trash the entire plastic bag industry because it’s the latest politically correct thing to do, do a little homework and you will find that the alternatives come with significant environmental and energy concerns.





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