I watched in envy as the Uber Eats drivers came and went, and then other customers, until finally my Pad Khi Mao order came up. Inside the plastic carrier bag were two food containers, each wrapped in its own plastic bag. And I was just getting started on the day’s plastic bag consumption. Later at the grocery store, I got six more bags.
“Double the heavy one,” the clerk said to the bagger. “And the one with the cereal box. It can tear the plastic.” Had she not said it for me, I might’ve asked. Plastic bags are awesome — lightweight, waterproof, and so cheap they’re free. Why did I get stared down like a criminal when I dared to ask for plastic? Here in St. Petersburg we burn our garbage — plastic bags included — and turn it into electricity. So what’s the big deal?
Right now, St. Petersburg’s City Council is considering implementing a five-cent fee for every single-use bag taken from a store or food carryout. And it’s a charge that would apply to paper or plastic bags, with exceptions for customers on assistance. In an email to Creative Loafing, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) asked us to consider whether this fee makes sense. So we did.
According to the APBA, their research “reveal[ed] that plastic grocery bags produce the least environmental impact when compared to the alternatives, such as paper and even cotton or canvas bags.” But their studies focused heavily on the higher up-front costs of paper and reusable bags. One failed to include the type of bag targeted by St. Petersburg’s fee — high density polyethylene (HDPE), those ubiquitous, single-use plastic bags. One of the studies even said outright that HDPE bags have “more environmental impact when abandoned in the environment.” And it’s what’s left behind that’s the big deal when it comes to plastic bags.
“On average, there’s about one to four pieces of microplastic per gallon of water in Tampa Bay,” says David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College. If that somehow seems trivial, consider that a single oyster filters about 50 gallons of water a day. “We don’t fully understand the impact of plastic in the environment, either on marine health or human heath, but one thing’s for sure — it can’t be good.”
We’ve all seen horrific images of birds, turtles and fish with bellies full of plastic, but now scientists have found that even plankton ingest these toxic residuals, meaning plastic is entering our food chain at its most basic level. This happens because plastic photodegrades slowly — it can take 1,000 years for one single-use bag to break down in the environment — becoming smaller as toxins leach out. Some estimate that plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals each year. And yet, here in Florida, we have a ban on restricting plastic bags.
“There’s a disconnect is between the reality of corporate interests and what’s best for the environment,” says Dan Huber, a biologist at the University of Tampa, who not only teaches sustainability, but also works on implementing the school’s sustainability initiatives. “We design disposable products with materials that last forever from the perspective of our lifetime.”
Plastic bags are so cheap, their availability is less about the commodity itself than facilitating purchase behavior. Thus Huber says it’s “a shell game” as to whether materials turn to waste or recycling, pointing out that “corporations want to promote consumer convenience, not reduced consumption.”
While the APBA is funded by the juggernaut that is the Plastic Industry Association — the sole representative for the entire supply chain of the $418 billion plastics industry in this country — in 2007, when Florida’s restriction on banning plastic bags was first introduced, it was heavily supported by Publix.
The United States is by far the leader in single-use plastic bag consumption. Estimates show that each year, 500 billion single-use plastic bags are consumed globally. Some 380 billion of those come from the U.S., where the average American household goes through 1,500 single-use plastic bags in that same timeframe. American consumption is so out of control, at the beginning of 2018, China stopped taking our recyclable plastic. This has created an enormous backlog for many cities, including, to some extent, St. Petersburg.
“Our material recycling facility is still finding customers,” says Jeff Donnel, a St. Petersburg waste management spokesperson. “But the value of the material has dropped dramatically.”
This is where initiatives like the St. Petersburg fee come into play, incentivizing reduced consumption of single-use plastic bags. If the city passes this ordinance, we’ll become one of only 349 cities across the U.S. that have restrictions in place regarding single-use plastic bags. It’s a move that’s met with success in other communities.
San Jose, CA, has seen plastic bags reduced by 89 percent in storm drains, 60 percent in rivers, and 59 percent in residential areas. In San Francisco, CA, it’s been estimated that the city has saved up to $600,000 per year in plastic processing fees. And in Seattle, WA, there’s been a reduction of plastic bags entering residential and commercial waste facilities (48 and 76 percent, respectively).
Already it’s been 11 years since San Francisco became the first city to ban plastic bags, which begs the question, what’s the holdup? But when put in perspective, this timeline might not be so unreasonable.
In 1985, 20 nations came together to regulate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), those nasty ozone-depleting chemicals found in aerosols. By 1987, the Montreal Protocol passed, and CFCs were banned globally. But the movement began more than a decade earlier.
In 1973, scientists from the University of California at Irvine published a paper citing CFCs dangers. Subsequent research was conducted, and then, graphic illustrations of the “ozone hole” were released. Though this has been credited with shocking the legislative community into action, according to Huber, action was taken only after Dow Chemical had a substitute product it could sell in the marketplace.
Currently, we lack a viable, commercially scalable alternative to the plastic bags we use.
“There are so many things that plastic is very good for,” says Camilo Ferro, founder of the bioplastic company, OneEarth Plastics, which sells compostable plastic bags. Ferro points out that there are no petroleum products in his company’s bags; they’re made from corn starch, which he claims relieves half of the environmental burden “even without composting.” But unfortunately, they’re also almost double the cost of regular bags and, oh yeah, they require composting. Otherwise you end up with the same landfill problem, where plastics aren’t the only culprit.
Paper bags take up more room in a landfill, and they don’t decompose well there, either. Nothing does. Because landfills aren’t designed to break down waste, but store it compactly between layers of clay and (of course) plastic. Researchers with The Garbage Project found 30-year-old newspapers inside dumps, looking much the same as they did the day they were thrown out. Even inside this sealed, oxygen-free environment, decomposition does happen, producing methane gas. Beyond the standard danger of being highly flammable, methane also contributes to global warming.
While there may be no financial incentive for companies to encourage reduction in consumption, the benefits are undeniable. And, when you look at the cities with bans in place, there’s certainly no evidence to suggest that these bans are having a detrimental effect on businesses.
Already, plastic bags have been banned in 32 countries around the globe.
“It’s going to take progressive governments putting their foot down and doing what St. Pete is about to do,” says Huber.
The next public hearing is set for December 13.