Before the Joint Standing Committee on Natural Resources
by Matt Prindiville, NRCM Clean Production Project Director
Good afternoon Senator Goodall, Representative Duchesne and members of the Natural Resources Committee. My name is Matt Prindiville, and I’m the Clean Production Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). NRCM is Maine’s leading, membership-supported environmental advocacy organization. We represent over 12,000 members and supporters and promote science-based, solutions-oriented policy on a variety of issues including energy, land conservation, river restoration and preventing toxic pollution.
It is clear that pollution related to the production, use and disposal of disposable plastic bags is an important environmental issue, and though NRCM has not yet developed a definitive position on how to address the problem, we are in support of moving forward with action to reduce plastic bag consumption and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags. Ideally, reusable bags would become the norm in our society. We recognize that a number of approaches can help achieve that goal, including the proposed approach in LD 367. For that reason, we support LD 367. We don’t have a strong position on whether the proposed fee is at the right level, but we do believe that a fee creates an incentive and that this approach has been proven successful elsewhere. For my testimony, I would like to provide some background that may be useful in your consideration of this legislation.
Disposable plastic bags were introduced in the 1970s and quickly took over the market, replacing and displacing paper and cloth bags (1). Since then, they have become a ubiquitous part of commerce, and several issues have arisen concerning their use.
• According to US EPA, somewhere between 500 billion and several trillion plastic bags are consumed each year, globally (2). This amounts to more than a million bags used per minute.
• According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion (3).)
• 90 percent of all grocery bags are now plastic according to the Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group of plastic bag manufacturers (4).
• The average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store (5).
• Plastic bags are light and hard to contain. Because of their light weight, plastic bags fly easily in wind, float along readily in the currents of rivers and oceans, get tangled up in trees, fences, poles, and block drainage.
• Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade (break down in light) into smaller and more toxic petropolymers, which contaminate soil and waterways and enter the food web when animals accidentally ingest these particles (6).
• Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food (7).
• Plastic bags are at the top of the list of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the Ocean Conservancy (8).
• Californians Against Waste estimates that 12 million barrels of oil are used annually to produce the plastic bags used in the US alone (9).
• More than 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the US alone (10).
• Also, while plastic bags are cheaper to produce and transport than paper, recycling plastic bags is an economic liability due to the necessary sorting process, ink contamination and the low quality of plastic used. Because of this reality, many plastic bags end up in landfills, where they take years to decompose.
Nations, states, cities and retailers are taking action across the globe to reduce plastic bag consumption. The policy tools used thus far are 1) bans 2) user fees and 3) recycling initiatives.
• San Francisco was the first city in the nation to pass a plastic bag ban. Stores are only allowed to provide paper bags and compostable bags to customers.
• LA recently enacted a similar law, banning plastic bags in supermarkets if the state fails to impose a 25-cent fee on every shopper who requests them.
• China recently banned the use and sale of ultrathin plastic bags.
• South Africa has also made such plastic bags illegal. These countries hope that laws against ultrathin bags will encourage consumers to bring their own bags or switch to sturdier, thicker plastic which is more profitable to recycle.
• Whole Foods recently enacted a nation-wide ban on plastic bags in their stores.
• In March 2001 the Republic of Ireland introduced a levy on plastic bags of 15 cents per bag. A report, published in 2007 shows that plastic bag consumption dropped from 1.2 billion bags a year to less than 100 million bags (more than 90%) and 18 million liters of oil has been saved annually. The fee also created significant revenue used to fund environmental initiatives (12).
• China recently made it illegal for stores to give away free plastic bags to consumers, so stores must now charge customers for bags.
Some legislation focuses on the recycling plastic bags, with an emphasis on producer responsibility. New York recently passed a bill that requires large stores and retail chains to collect and recycle plastic bags.
Likewise, a California law (AB 2449) requires certain large stores to set up in-store recycling centers for plastic bags. In addition, any plastic bags made available at these stores must be printed with “Please return to a participating store for recycling.” There must be an easily accessible recycling bin and the store must keep records of the recycling, transport and collection of plastic bags.
As a last point, paper bags are not a significantly better option from an environmental standpoint. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone (13). While paper bags have better recycling rates (10 to 15% for paper compared to 1-3% for plastic), much more energy is expended to recycle paper than plastic and the life-cycle pollution associated with their use is on par with plastic bags. For this reason, policies to support the use of reusable bags are the best path forward.
We understand that some consumers are getting the message and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store while shopping. However, it is unlikely that we will see significant reduction in plastic bag use without policies to encourage the use of reusable bags. The success of the Ireland bag fee would indicate the policy option proposed in the bill could be very successful in reducing plastic bag consumption. We urge you to address this issue in committee this year.
Thank you for your consideration. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
1 Sullivan, Laurence O. “A Green Policy on Plastic Bag Use.” waste-reduction.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_green_policy_on_plastic_bag_useedition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/04/06/eco.plastics/index.html 2 Ibid.
3 www.greeninfosource.com/bethedifference.htm 4 Conway, Chris. “Taking Aim at All Those Plastic Bags.” New York Times. April 1, 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/weekinreview/01basics.html
5 “The Numbers: Believe it or Not.” ReusableBags.com www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=4
6 wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_are_plastic_bags_so_bad_for_the_environment7 “Marine Debris: More than an Eye Sore.” Ocean Conservancy Fact Sheet. January 2008.
9 Sullivan, Laurence O. “A Green Policy on Plastic Bag Use.” waste-reduction.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_green_policy_on_plastic_bag_use
10 “The Numbers: Believe it or Not.” ReusableBags.com www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=4
11 All about Recycling Plastics.” CNN.com edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/04/06/eco.plastics/index.html
12 Sullivan, Laurence O. “A Green Policy on Plastic Bag Use.” waste-reduction.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_green_policy_on_plastic_bag_use
13 “Paper Bags are Better than Plastic, Right?” ReusableBags.com www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=7