Rep. Judith Spang isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks about all those terrible plastic shopping bags you’re using at the grocery store—even if you’re a total stranger.
“I was walking out of the grocery store and I saw a woman with so many plastic bags in her cart it looked like it was about to take flight,” Rep. Spang told NHJournal. “She appeared to be an upscale person, so I approached her, held up my [reusable] bag and said ‘Hey—how about trying one of these?’”
The unknown, upscale shopper shouldn’t feel singled out. That’s Rep. Spang’s message for everyone in New Hampshire.
The Durham Democrat is proposing legislation to ban Granite State retailers from offering plastic bags and plastic straws to their customers. Not only that, Rep. Spang wants the state to force retailers who offer paper bags in their place to charge shoppers 10 cents per bag. The goal isn’t simply to discourage the use of plastic shopping bags but to push consumers into using reusable cloth/recycled plastic bags.
“The woman I confronted at the store told me that she had reusable bags at home but just forgot to bring them,” Rep. Spang said. “If the other options aren’t there, people will remember.”
That is Rep. Spang’s hope. However, according to multiple studies, while millions of American have purchased or picked up reusable bags, only a small percentage of shoppers actually use them regularly. And even if they did, research also shows that bags have to be reused a significant number of times—between 50 and 100 times based on the kind of bag—to make them less damaging to the environment than commonly-used plastic shopping bags.
The number of times these reusable bags are actually reused? Fourteen.
Those are just a few of the facts about plastic shopping bags and the environment that members of New Hampshire’s retail and business communities want to inject into the debate as the bag ban legislation moves forward.
“The most important thing that will be debated regarding this bill will be the facts. We need the legislature to make decisions based on facts–not just their feelings about plastic bags,” says Bruce Berke, New Hampshire state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Plastic bag bans have been spreading across the U.S., most commonly in politically liberal locations like California, Hawaii, Seattle and Boston. However, a few communities in red states like North and South Carolina, and even Texas(!), have joined in, too.
Do Americans like the bans? A recent Rasmussen poll found Americans closely split on the issue, with 44 percent supporting a ban and 40 percent opposed (16 percent were undecided). There’s no recent statewide polling data, but assuming Granite Staters are like the rest of America, there’s no overwhelming majority of support. Unlike the Democrats in the state legislature who, many observers believe, are ready to pass this bill or something similar.
“This group of Democrats in the House is new, they’re enthusiastic and they want to make a statement. Bills like this are exactly the sort of thing they’d rather do than deal with the long-term, more difficult issues of governing,” one state house observer told NHJournal. “They want simple votes for big changes right away.”
But what about the data? The reasons given for banning a plastic shopping bags—which even their most ardent opponents admit are a true convenience—are all environmental. And yet the evidence supporting any environmental benefit from such a ban is thin at best.
For example, environmentalists have already acknowledged that ending the use of plastic shopping bags would increase — not decrease — CO2 emissions because of the amount of energy required to manufacture and ship paper bags.
“Oh, I know papers bags take much more energy, plus all that water. That’s why I want a 10-cents per bag fee on paper bags as well,” Rep. Spang says. “Reusable bags aren’t a solution for global warming, but they are a solution for our environment and our wildlife.”
Rep. Sprang says that disposable plastic bags are part of the landfill, litter and pollution problem. “It’s clear that our municipal waste is a big problem. How much does it cost to dispose of these bags? And they’re very difficult on our recycling machinery, too. And then there’s their effect on ocean life—all the sea creatures being killed by our bags. This is entirely avoidable.”
The costs of throwing plastic bags away varies from town to town, but the one constant is that recycling costs more than simply hauling away trash. That’s particularly true now that China has stopped subsidizing the U.S. recycling system by accepting relatively low-quality recyclable. China’s new higher standards have resulted in a 90 percent drop in the amount of U.S. plastic they accepted for recycling last year.
But this just highlights the fact that recycling isn’t cheap. It requires labor, technology and energy—all of which creates its own carbon footprint. And it costs residents money to pay more for recycling than simply to dump trash in the landfill.
Bag-ban advocates argue that our landfills are filling up and we need to keep the bags out. However, even the New York Times has acknowledged that America has more than enough landfill capacity for hundreds of years. And most of the plastic shopping bags we throw away (as opposed to reuse for trash bags, diaper disposal and doggie poo, etc) end up in the landfill, not our lakes or oceans. Despite the massive size of our economy and huge volume of plastic we use, less than 1 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from the U.S.
And despite complaints about plastic bags fouling our streets and sewers, the definitive litter study—the 2009 Keep America Beautiful Survey—found that all retail plastic bags (which includes sandwich bags, dry cleaning bags, etc) account for just 0.6 percent of visible litter nationwide.
While the benefits of shopping-bag bans are negligible, the cost isn’t.
“The grocery store business is a business with very small margins,” John Dumais, president of the NH Grocers Association tells NHJournal. “We work on a margin of one-half percent to one percent profit in our best-run stores. Plastic bags are economical, for us and for our customers. Back when it was paper bags, it would take four or five trailer trucks of paper to supply a store for as long as a single truck today. And they’re more expensive. That means higher prices for our customers.”
Dumais also points out that his industry encourages onsite plastic-bag recycling (“We have the bins right at the front of the store!”) and that their customers are used to the convenience. “Every family I know has shopping bags at home that they’re reusing. People count on them.”
“We aren’t telling people they can’t bring their reusable bags, or they can’t use paper bags. We just want to offer our customers a choice,” Dumais said.
But for Rep. Spang, that’s the problem. “People talk about freedom, well I remember a few years ago when we banned smoking from bars and restaurants. I remember thinking it would never happen, because people didn’t want to be told what to do. But now people have accepted it. Some grumble, and the rest of us support it.
“There are a whole bunch of things where, if people will not behave responsibly, the government has to tap them on the shoulder.”
Granite Staters should expect to feel that tap sometime in the upcoming legislative session.