Exploring alternatives as bans on single-use plastic bags become more common

Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2015

Sometimes referred to as “urban tumbleweed” littering streets and clogging sewers, single-use plastic bags are an scourge to healthy ecosystems across the globe.

This has prompted bans and taxes on their use in a number of countries including China, the European Union, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Mali, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. And a number of communities in the United States are following suit.

In Northampton, a ban on single-use plastic bags thinner than three millimeters is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2016, and businesses and consumers are preparing for the shift toward a more sustainable bag.

City councilors Jesse M. Adams and Paul D. Spector, who co-sponsored the ordinance, said the intention of the ban in Northampton is to create a culture in which shoppers, particularly in grocery stores, will bring their own reusable cloth bags.

That culture already seems to be well on its way.

“I have been bringing my own bags and baskets for a long time,” said Sharlene Boyce of Northampton on her way into the Big Y supermarket on North King Street. “I think they should get rid of all the plastic bags, we don’t need them.”

Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of corporate communications at Big Y Foods Inc., said that the chain’s alternative to single-use plastic bags will be paper bags.

“We have a similar ban at a store in Great Barrington, so we are ready for this,” D’Amour said.

Other stores in the city, including State Street Fruit and Coopers Corner, already have sacked their plastic bags and moved to paper, and others like River Valley Market has never used plastic bags. And Serio’s Market in Northampton, which stopped using plastic bags in 2008, also discouraged use of paper bags beginning on Earth Day, April 22, , this year, by expanding its involvement with the BagShare Project and having more reusable cloth bags available in the store at 65 State St.

Bans elsewhere

Fourteen other Massachusetts communities already have passed similar bans on plastic bags.

“Northampton is usually at the forefront of things like this, but this time we are not,” Spector said. “It is time for us to join other communities here and in the rest of the world.”

Legislation has been filed by state Rep. Lori A. Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, that would phase out single-use bags in Massachusetts by July 1, 2017, and allow retailers to charge a 10-cent fee for biodegradable and reusable bags, as well as recycled paper bags.

Last year California was the first state to approve a statewide ban on single-use bags, which was to take effect last week on July 1. The ban however, has been stalled by a referendum financed by the plastics industry that may prevent its implementation until the fall of 2016.

“When a state like Massachusetts jumps on board, I think things will move along a lot faster,” Spector said.

Measuring impact

There is no product that has zero effect on the environment, and where materials come from, how they are produced, processed, and transported and disposed of all factor into measuring environmental soundness.

The choice is often between the lesser of the evils, and those are sometimes mired in language that can be misleading. Some products appear to be eco-friendly options, but they would not hold up to Northampton’s bag ban.

For example, Crown Poly Inc. produces a plastic polyethylene bag made of recycled material called “Eco-Hippo” that the company markets as “10 times stronger than standard grocery bags” due to a reinforced strip on the bottom seal.

The bag sounds “reusable” but is designed to reduce the need for extra bags or double bagging. The recyclable “Eco-Hippo” looks and feels exactly like a single-use bag because it is made of the same thin plastic.

Even with a reinforced bottom, the “Eco-Hippo” bags would not be exempt from the city’s ban.

“If it is under three millimeters thick, this bag would be banned under the ordinance,” Adams said.

Bags made of cotton, hemp or jute — along with other fabrics — are strong, and can be used for extended periods of time. While some may be imported from across the world increasing their carbon footprint, most are recyclable and those made of natural fibers are 100 percent biodegradable.

Earthwise is one of many companies that produces the strong, reusable, cloth-like foldable bags frequently found on sale at store checkout lines. Unlike a natural fabric bag, however, these bags are actually made of 100 percent polyethylene, a common plastic. Still, they can be repeatedly reused and they have a recycling rating of 2 on the plastics scale, which means you can put them in your curb-side recycling.

Biodegradable, compostable

Products that are labeled as biodegradable and compostable sound eco-friendly and sometimes this is the case, but the jury is still out for plastics.

Biodegradable plastics are designed to biodegrade during composting. To be properly disposed of, they need to be sent to a commercial composting facility. If biodegradable bags make their way into landfills, which are airtight and designed for anaerobic decomposition, they are basically just another plastic bag.

Likewise plastic bags labeled as “compostable” are also made to be disposed of in commercial composting facility and are not made to degrade in home compost settings, which cannot provide the intense heat necessary.

And in a 2014 study done at Ohio University, researchers found that most bioplastics or so called “green” plastics currently on the market do not do not meet industry standards for compostability.

Bags made of bioplastics that make their way into aquatic and marine environments, still pose a significant threat to those ecosystems.

Earlier this year, Dannielle Green, a research fellow in the biogeochemistry research group at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, published a study in Environmental Science & Technology.

The study showed that it took only nine weeks for plastic bags to completely smother the surface of coastal sediments, reducing the amount of micro-algae that form the base of the coastal food web. The time was the same for regular plastic bags and bioplastic bags.

Greene said that her research suggests that the rate at which the bioplastics break down may not be fast enough to have any meaningful advantage over conventional bags in marine habitats.

Paper bags

Many believe that uncolored and untreated paper is the lesser of the evils as it is produced from a renewable resource, is recyclable and does not persist in the environment in the same way as plastic.

“Every member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association uses paper bags,” River Valley Market front-end manager Jillian Allen said. “All of our bags are forest-certified.”

The Forest Stewardship Council provides certification that ensures that wood products come from responsibly managed forests.

Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council based in New York City, said that paper bags can be easily recycled but plastic bags just don’t have a very good track record.

“The recycling of plastic bags has not proven to be very successful unless people are bringing them to collection sites at places like supermarkets,” Hoover said. “But that takes planning ahead, and if people are planning ahead anyway, then it is just as easy to remember to bring a reusable or cloth bag.”

Darby said that the council supports bans on single-use plastic bags, and also encourages legislators to include a small mandatory fee on paper bags. She also noted it would be appropriate to provide reusable bags to low-income consumers at no cost.

“Even five cents can make people think twice. The good news is that, in other communities with similar bans, we have seen dramatic reductions in the use of paper,” Hoover said.


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