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Debunking Myths About Plastic Bags | The Irish Bag Tax: Early Case Study Exposes Misguided Policy | Myths & Facts About Plastic Grocery Bags

Debunking Myths About Plastic Bags
Did you know that plastic bags are convenient, low-cost and better for the environment, recycling, reuse, energy and natural resource efficiency, and public health than bags made of alternative materials?

More popular and versatile…

  • About 100 billion bags are sold annually around the world.
  • Industry figures show 90 percent of all grocery bags are plastic.
  • Lightweight, but tough, plastic bags carry heavy loads. A bag weighing less than one ounce can carry up to 44 pounds.
  • Bags have been used as “baggies” and sandwich bags since 1957; dry-cleaning bags since 1958; bread packaging since the mid-1960s; produce bags in grocery stores since 1969; merchandise bags at major department stores since 1974; grocery bags at the check stand since 1977.
  • Because they can be reused again and again, common uses for plastic bags include additional trips to retail and grocery stores, lunch bags, storage, trash can liners, cleaning up after pets, protecting valuables from rain and snow, protecting water and gas lines in winter, and even keeping clothing dry on boating trips or when umbrellas are not at hand.

Better for the environment…

  • Only nine percent of waste in landfills is plastic and only half of that is plastic bags and films.
  • Plastic bags take up less space in landfills – one seventh of the space of paper bags.
  • The manufacture of plastic bags release 94 percent less pollution into the water and 70 percent less air pollution than the manufacture of paper bags.
  • Plastic bags do not produce toxic fumes when burned.

Better for recycling….

  • Recycling for plastic bags has been available at U.S. supermarkets since 1992.  There are currently over 15,000 drop off locations for plastic bags in all 50 states. 
  • There is a growing market for recycled plastic that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Today recyclers make 15-20 cents per pound of collected bags. It’s also cheaper now to use recycled plastic than to obtain new materials, increasing potential for more recycling and for more use of recycled bags.
  • Bags can be recycled into plastic “lumber,” planters for gardening, new plastic bags, and other products.

Better for reuse….

  • 100 percent of the excess material in the manufacturing of plastic bags is reused.
  • More than 90 percent of consumers reportedly save and reuse plastic bags – in multiple ways and, frequently, multiple times.
  • A government study in the United Kingdom found that four out of five people reuse their plastic shopping bags for: liners for wastebaskets, storage, book and lunch bags, and to pick up pet waste.

Better for energy and natural resource efficiency…

  • When incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities, which produce electricity for homes and businesses, plastic bags yield more energy than coal and burn more cleanly as well.
  • According to studies, the manufacture of plastic bags uses up to 40 percent less energy than the manufacture of paper bags.
  • Plastic bags save energy in transportation: it takes seven trucks to deliver the same number of paper bags as one truck of plastic bags. More than 2.8 million plastic grocery bags can be delivered in one truck.
  • Improved technology increases the durability and lifespan of bags, while reducing materials needed in the manufacturing process. Plastic grocery sacks were 2.3 mils (thousands of an inch) thick in 1976 and were down to 1.75 mils by 1984. In 1989, new technology gave us the same strength and durability in a bag only 0.7 mil thick.
  • Plastics are lighter than many alternative materials, which translates to a savings in energy use. They have consistently reduced the weight of truck payloads and allowed companies to ship more product in fewer trucks.
  • A study by Columbia University found that there is a direct correlation between increased use of plastic packaging and reduced wastage of food. Plastic bags in developed nations help us to reduce the amount of food that is wasted to about three percent as compared to 50 percent in developing countries.

Better for public health…

  • Plastic film and bags protect our food from external contaminants such as germs and harmful bacteria, and keep food fresh.
  • State and local authorities strongly recommend that plastic bags be used to protect human health from harmful bacteria and parasites from animal wastes that would otherwise contaminate the water supply, shellfish populations and swimming areas.

The Irish Bag Tax: Early Case Study Exposes Misguided Policy

States with Plastic Bag Regulatory Initiatives
Countries with Plastic Bag Regulatory Initiatives

In March 2002, the Republic of Ireland instituted a tax on plastic bags tax in which retailers charged their customers 15 Euro cents (about 17 U.S. cents) for every shopping bag purchased. Now four years later, the Irish bag tax, which was supposedly passed in an effort to curb litter, has actually proved to be a disaster on several fronts. Unfortunately, it was hailed by environmentalists and others and quickly spawned the consideration of similar legislation by governments in Australia, Bangladesh, South Africa, and the United States. Scotland is currently considering a tax on retail plastic bags, but the Scottish Parliament’s environmental committee rejected the idea as unworkable in October 2006. A full parliamentary decision on the policy is anticipated by 2007.

The four-year experience of Ireland’s bag tax has shown that the policy is not only worse for the environment, but causes other social problems as well:

  • Where customers have been driven to use paper bags, it is now common for double or triple-bagging to take place to overcome the inferior strength of paper compared with plastic. This means, at least twice the numbers of paper bags are being used than plastic bags had been used. This leads to huge increases in the number of shipments and truckloads needed to transport paper bags.
  • There is also clear evidence in Ireland of a switch to paper bag substitutes which consume eight times the raw material, three times the energy, create twice the levels of air pollution, waste fifty times as much process water, have six times the weight and ten times the volume.
  • The Irish bag tax has caused a switch to heavier, bulkier alternatives which will degrade or decompose to produce greenhouse gases.
  • There is no evidence offered (unsurprisingly given the fact that plastic carrier bags are less than 1% of litter) that litter has reduced in the Republic of Ireland since the introduction of a plastic bag tax.
  • The Irish bag tax actually has invited more shoplifting to occur. Because plastic bags are normally only offered and used during or after payment has been received, it provides the most effective visual evidence of payment for goods. In Ireland, where customers were driven to bring their own shopping bags into stores, this has made the theft of goods from the shelf far easier as well as costing every small grocery shop in Ireland an average of 5,400 Euros per annum in stolen and/or abandoned wire baskets and trolleys (metal containers).
  • These metal containers have far greater environmental impacts during production, shipment, eventual disposal, etc. and are a far greater visual problem when abandoned into the local environment than plastic bags.
  • Research shows that since the bag tax was introduced in Ireland, there has been little significant reduction (if at all) in the tonnage of plastic bags of all types used in that country.
  • Experience in the Republic of Ireland indicates that the usage of plastic carrier bags has declined by in excess of 90% - but the residual funds (est. 10 million Euros) generated by the remaining 10% of those prepared to pay for carrier bags is estimated to be far less than the cost borne by the authorities in administering the program and is certainly less than the increased cost of theft to retailers as stated by RGDATA (Irish Grocers’ Association) and in other published reports.

(Source: Carrier Bag Consortium at www.carrierbagtax.com)


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