Will Chicago Ban Plastic Bags?

On the day Los Angeles banned the bags, Chicago’s city council debated it—in the wake of a study that found surprising plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

The bag tree: An endangered species in Chicago? 

Yesterday, Chicago’s city council debated Joe Moreno’s proposed ban on plastic bags at stores. Under Moreno’s plan, stores would have to sell reusable ones and offer biodegradable options. (We actually don’t really know what happens to plastic bags—they haven’t been around long enough—but scientists believe they photodegrade over 500 to 1,000 years.)

It’s an idea that’s been floating around for a few years, and now it’s got a tailwind. It comes not from the adorable children who showed up in support of the ban, but from our metropolitan peers in Los Angeles, who just banned the bags yesterday over the objections of the American Progressive Bag Alliance (no, really). Technically, they have to vote again, but it’s popular in their city council and expected to pass:

Tuesday’s 11-1 vote delivered a hard-fought victory to an array of environmental groups, which have been going city by city and county by county with campaigns to keep plastic bags out of landfills, waterways and the ocean. Although council members backed the concept of a ban last year, they voted Tuesday on specific legal language and how it would be enforced.

One likely reaction: We’re all gonna die. Or more specifically: Some of us will die from increased E. coli deaths. If you follow this sort of thing, you may recall that an unpublished working paper caused a bit of a panic when it found that E. coli deaths in San Francisco spiked (“46 percent increase in the deaths from foodborne illnesses") after the city’s 2007 ban.

But there are important caveats. First, it’s a working paper. Second, it’s correlation, not causation. Third, as Berkeley epidemiologist Tomás Aragón points out, the authors didn’t sufficiently differentiate between types of intestinal infectious diseases:

The authors analyze deaths due to ICD-10 cause of death codes A00-A09 (intestinal infectious dseases). From 2001 through 2010 San Francisco had a total of 140 deaths from these causes. However, 111 of them (79%) were for code A047 (Enterocolitis due to Clostridium difficile). These infections have indeed increased in San Francisco since 2005 (before the ban) (Table 1). Toxin-producing C. difficile causes enterocolitis through overgrowth when exposed to antibiotics, most commonly in hospitalized patients. However, in recent years we have seen an unexplained increase of C. difficile enterocolitis in the United States, Europe, and Canada. The increase in San Francisco probably reflects this international increase. Foodborne exposures is not yet an established cause of C. difficile enterocolitis, but is an active area of research.

For these reasons, the authors should not have included C. diffcile deaths in their analysis. Without C. difficile, there were a total of 29 deaths in these codes over 10 years through 2010. So their analysis of deaths, and costs due to deaths, is completely invalid as evidence for their argument about reusable bags.

Aragón has a number of other criticisms. But the paper isn’t useless. Whether C. diff is foodborne isn’t just an active area of research, it’s something scientists are kind of freaked out about, but they’re still working on it. There’s some value to saying, “Hey, we should take a look at this,” but it’s not remotely causual yet. But don’t take it from me, here’s the lead author: “At the end of the day, we have a scientific basis that suggests this is a plausible idea.”

So that’s our own ecosystems. What about the greater environment? A lot of the push behind the plastic bag ban has been a quality-of-life issue; not everyone finds floating bags as poetic as emo movie kids. There is a plastic pollution problem in the Great Lakes, which comes up in the Trib article:

Stiv Wilson, spokesman for the 5 Gyres Institute that tracks plastic pollution in oceans and lakes, said his organization recorded the highest density of plastic byproducts in Lake Erie of any body of water it has tested around the world. “We expect that we will find similar results to Erie (in Lake Michigan),” Wilson said.

But much of that problem is tiny little plastics:

They’re finding tiny, perfectly round beads of plastic in many of the samples [from the Great Lakes], and this might hold another clue about the source of particles. “The cosmetics industry uses plastic micro-beads in soaps, toothpaste and other products. Because the products are not designed for ingestion, they don’t have to test for this. It’s completely unregulated and may be a significant source of micro-plastics finding their way into the environment,” she says.

Wilson’s organization found 350,000 beads in one tube of facial cleanser. A plastic bag ban would reduce some of the visibly offensive plastic pollution, but there’s a lot more that we can’t see, and enough of a problem that cosmetic giant Unilever has gotten ahead of the game, phasing out microbeads by 2015.


10 months ago
Posted by joejoejoe

This is a feel-good greenwash measure that will make life worse.

The E. Coli paper may be a weak correlation but an Oregon county health department witnessed the first non-human to human transmission of the norovirus when a reusable bag got an entire girls soccer team sick. http://goo.gl/7JylV

The Environment Agency (equivalent to EPA) in the UK found that plastic bags contribute 1/3 less to global warming than a paper bag and more than 100 times less than a cotton bag. http://goo.gl/b8cLv

I haven't bought a trash bag in 4 years. I reuse all my plastic bags as small trash can liners. You'd have to use a cotton bag more than 300 times in order to be use less energy than simply using all your plastic bags as trash bags. Next time you go to a takeout restaurant, ask to see how many bags come in one box. A box a bit bigger than a shoe box has 1000 bags inside! Consumerism of stuff INSIDE the bags is the problem, not the bags themselves.

10 months ago
Posted by STIV

Hey Whet:

Thanks for the thoughtful article here. A couple of notes however--

The 500-1000 year statistic doesn't have to do with photodegradeability-- that's an unknown for any type of plastic. Scientists DO know it happens and also KNOW that it's different for different types of plastics. It is 'assumed' that plastic bags, because they're make of flimsy, thin, HDPE would photo-degrade fairly quickly in a high sun, aquatic environment and we know that it happens way quicker than say even 40 years because we're finding fragments of plastic bags in the gyres and for the most part, there were no plastic bags in the ocean 40 years ago and fragments are ubiquitous-- and the two most common types? Polypropylene and Polyethylene (plastic bag stock). Now if 'scientists are saying 500-1000' years for biodegradeability, I've heard that statistic, seen it on NGO produced inforgraphics, etc. and I have no idea of its veracity and frankly, the scientists I speak with think it's dead wrong and that it's much, much longer-- this is hydrocarbon molecule-- all molecules degrade (biodegrade) in chemical half-lifes, persistent ones persist, volatile ones don't- plastic bags are monomer polyethylene molecules in polymer chains. The half life of a polyethylene molecule is really, really SLOW and is affected by a lot of forces-- this 500-1000 year stat is phooey at best. The plastic molecules are hanging out for in human relevant terms, 'forever.'

Also, you misquoted me-- We did not record 'byproducts' we recorded a mixture of photodegraded particulate pieces of micro-plastics as well as .3 to .5mm plastic beads of the type found in facial cleansers that are most likely coming through sewage treatment plants. It was a mix of typical ocean micro-plastics + new stuff, runoff stuff we haven't yet seen.

Also, I never said this, "Because the products are not designed for ingestion, they don’t have to test for this," What I said is that these products are not designed for recovery and sewage treatment is built to deal with stuff this small. What's scary is that they're so small that fish and other organisms not only will ingest this stuff, they can breathe it--

I appreciate you parsing out the 'study' about food borne illness deaths spiking in SF and debunking it. But it's a huge stretch to say anyone or any scientist is 'freaked out about it' even if the lead scientist debunking it says it's a valid question to ask-- and don't take my word for it, the CDC isn't worried about it all. You're a hundred times more likely to get E. Coli poisoning from a bag of salad green than even the dirtiest reusable bag-- and let's remember that NO STUDY has ever been published showing that E Coli in any level found in a reusable bag is dangerous to humans-- NO STUDY not even the one that The American Chemistry Council commissioned and cites! They cite a study making a link that isn't scientifically supported in their own paper! Cynicism at it's worst!!!!

10 months ago
Posted by Romeo Desa

Croatian contribution to the American discussion

In Croatia we are in the beginning of our "anti tax on plastic bag" campaign and I prepared several arguments for discussion. When I saw your article I find that I can give contribution to this discussion. Then, I feel free to post comment on your article with scientifically proven arguments. This article also I wrote as a comment on Washington Post and very similar on The News Tribune (Tacoma) web pages.

Here is my article with 40 arguments in favor of plastic bags, and why American cities should not ban plastic bags:

Former ministry for environmental protection and nature of Croatia proposed tax for plastic bags (we were not sure for which: single use, reusable, plastic bags for garbage, all?), but she has a plan that this tax should be approximately 5400% more than value of one single use plastic bag.

Our Society for plastic and rubber and plastic bag producers started campaign to inform media and public, what this proposed tax really mean and what consequences that might cause this tax.

Before I write our arguments see some statements of:
George Monbiot in "The Guardian": Plastic bags are not the scourge of the planet; their biggest evil is to distract us from more pressing causes
Vladimir Ferdelji - Croatian manager: Plastic products including plastics bags are very competitive product in any point of view (price, quality, ecological, usability) and producers of products from other materials, which can't reach this competitiveness, must cry out for taxes or bans.
Same manager: Plastic bag's real problem is that she very fast and very noticeable reveals our behavior.

Here is some of arguments what we use in our campaign:
1. plastic bag is multi functional light and firmly product and suitable for all uses (wet, oily, dirty, bulk)
2. plastic bag isn't environmental problem, real problem is human behavior (and lack of waste collection, separation and recycling system). It is not possible correct the human behavior with bans or taxes on any material
3. lot of researches confirm that plastic bags are really negligible part of house hold waste. In Austria they took part with 0,02%, in Great Britain plastic bags took 0,03% space on landfills
4. plastic bag footprint is only 0,05% of average citizen's footprint in our environment. In Austria calculate that average citizen's footprint by using plastic bags during the whole year is same as he drive 13 km with car (according to Denkstat Institute research)
5. we estimate that average Croatian citizen produce plastic bag's waste only 300 to max. 500 grams per year
6. after ban plastic bags in San Francisco, consumption of paper bags rise on double number than was before with plastic bags, because every consumer in markets and stores have to use two or three paper bags for same amount of products. That means fourfold more impact on environment.
7. if tax or ban passed in local community, average consumer will use more other bags (cotton or paper) whose impact on the environment are lot worse
8. if tax or ban passed, consumption of other type of plastic bags will increase. See Irish experience, when they introduce tax on plastic bags this reduced using of single use bags for 90%, but in supermarkets almost in same time increased sale of plastic bag for garbage for 400%
9. every, so called, single use plastic bag are used minimum three times - when we carry out products from store, then we wrap products and put in the fridge, and on the end we use them for as a garbage bags
10. plastic bags use negligible space on landfills. In one of good organized landfill in Croatia, all plastic packaging (bags, wraps and foils - without plastic bottles and containers) are only 2,9% of the total waste
11. many researches confirm that plastic bag's footprint is less than footprints of other products for same usage. Paper bags has 10 time more impact on greenhouse effect, factor depletion of natural resources of paper bag are 62 more than plastic bag,
12. LCA of consumer bags carried by the British Ministry of Environmental Protection has determined that the plastic bag over the paper bag and cloth bag has a significantly lower index of the GWP (Global Warming Potential)
13. consumption of raw materials for paper bags are 22 more than for plastics bags

Comparison is as follows:
14. material consumption: plastic 1 - paper 22 > 22 time more;
15. greenhouse effect: plastic 3 - paper 30 > 10 time more;
16. factor depletion of natural resources: plastic 0,0045 - paper 0,28 > 62 time more;
17. eutrophication: plastic 0 - paper 0,025;
18. water consumption (for 1000 bags): - less than 200 liters for plastic bags,
- 3800 liters for paper bags > 17 time more;
- 27000 liters for cotton bags > 135 time more
19. Or calculation on another way:
- to produce a one ton of polyethylene from which is produce about 200.000 plastic bags need less than 200 liters of water;
- to produce a one ton of paper from which is produce about 10.000 paper bags are consumed 15.000-20.000 liters of water.
- to produce only one cotton bag are consumed 2700 liters of water, or to produce 1 ton of cotton cloth are consumed 10.000.000 to 17.000.000 liters of water - for all cotton production, today is using 2,6 % of all World water consumption (well-known case of Aral Sea)
20. for producing plastic bag are using ethylene C2H4 - not intoxicated gas which we get as a surplus product in refining of gasoline and natural gas. Ethylene is use in the production of polyethylene -raw material for plastic bag, and we use only 5 to 7 grams of polyethylene per bags.
21. for all World's plastic bag production we use only 0,05% of all oil consumption (50% of oil consumption are use for transport, 32% for heating - that mean that we simply burned 82% of oil; 10% for chemical industry where is 5% for all plastics and where is 0,05% for plastic bags)
22. for 1 ton of paper used 3,5 tons of wood and lot of not harmless chemicals (sodium sulfate, sodium hydroxide, magnesium, ammonium bisulphite, chlorine, titanium dioxide, chloride polyaluminium)
23. in waste water after paper production heavy metals were found
24. for textile bags most commonly used cotton. Cotton is grown on about 3% of World arable land, and that the cultivation is treated with 25% of world production of pesticides and herbicides
25. according to Austrian's institute Denkstat research, production and using of plastic bags from energetic point of view is favorably than paper or cotton bags. Unit energy consumption for plastic bag is lower, and at the end of the life cycle of plastic bags can energy recovered
26. when recycling is a new product consumes much less energy. In cases where the useless bag is burned, due to its high energy value can be used to produce thermal energy
27. plastic bags or any plastic that has given a very high energy value, it can be in new and modern processes that are well developed and optimized, with inexpensive and efficient method convert into high value fuel
28. at the same time it should be noted that for polyethylene production consumes a total of only 150 kJ/cm3, for steel processing 350 kJ/cm3 and for aluminum alloy processing 600 kJ/cm3 of energy
29. paper bags are 18 to 20 times, and canvas bags are up to 30 times more voluminous than plastic bags. To transport these bags take more trucks to be transported from producer to consumer.
30. calculation is simple: if average consumer spends 200 bags per year, in United States (310 million of citizens) spend 62 billion of plastic bags per year. One average track can load 2,7 million plastic bags, or 150.000 paper bags or 92.000 cotton bags that mean that in United States for plastic bag transport use 22.963 trucks, for paper bags 413.333 trucks (18 time more than for plastic bags) and for cotton bags 673.913 trucks (29 time more than for plastic bags)
31. this means more fuel that many times, many times more CO2 and other exhaust gases emissions into the atmosphere, that many times more damaging and unnecessary burdening costly road infrastructure
32. when it comes to increasing the volume of consumer bags should be mentioned that this will increase volume of waste in the same proportion. Such an increase in the volume of waste will all bring higher costs, because the citizens will reject more voluminous waste, and utility companies because more waste must transported more time and this voluminous waste will occupy more space in landfills.
33. following the introduction of tax on plastic bags in Ireland, where it is their consumption significantly reduced (90%), there was no reduction of waste at landfills
34. the introduction of tax on plastic bags will redirect consumers to the use of paper and cloth bags which are expensive and will result in increased cost of living. In supermarkets consumer chooses fruit or vegetables and packed into a thin plastic bag by himself. Charging plastic bags will increase the need for packaging fruit and vegetables and other products in other type of packaging and will automatically increase the consumption of more voluminous and expensive polystyrene trays and plastic film for wrapping. This will also increase labor and packaging costs and will get an additional price increase
35. increased use of multiple used bags and cloth bags there is a risk for non hygienic conditions and bacterial contamination of purchased products, particularly for moisture content (norovirus).
36. in order to maintain proper hygiene such cloth bags need to be cleaned and washed which automatically means an increase in the consumption of drinking water, expensive energy hazardous chemicals such as detergents, and increase the amount of waste water with remains of detergents what mean increased eutrophication
37. the introduction of tax on plastic bags will have a significant negative impact on the system of organized collection and recycling of plastic bags and generally for all plastic.
38. the recycling materials are kept, preserved natural resources and reducing energy consumption (it is well known: plastic = raw material + energy, by recycling we save both, and raw materials and energy).
39. without recycling, which will result from ban or tax on plastic bags, we will lose all positive effects of plastic, it loses the raw materials and energy, but lose the great possibilities of recycling system that allows just the economic and environmental benefits
40. taxing or banning plastic bags isn't scientifically or professional justified and proven. Explanations of decisions from their advocates and politicians are just flat, sensationalized, based on wrong, false and fraudulent information, or with quite another purpose in background (other lobbies, profits or interests - and definitely no ecological reasons), or are simply populist adulation to the uninformed or wrong informed public

Sorry for my English. :-(
For any question or additional information do not hesitate to contact me:

Best regards from Croatia
Romeo Desa

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