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Dirge for a Plastic Bag Part 2

There are more PFFC readers with an opinion on banning plastic bags since my last column in August. And there's still more positive news on the subject, depending on one's interpretation.

Let's hear from the first reader:

Sorry to say, but I'm so tired of the “debate” over plastic vs. paper vs. reusable bags. … I love plastic bags from stores and use them regularly…around my house. … As well, I think paper grocery bags are great, since we use one of them to hold newspapers and another for waste paper…for eventual recycling. Our municipal refuse service loves them since the workers can toss the bag and contents together into the appropriate section of the recycling truck. And as an avid newspaper and magazine reader, we recycle a lot of paper. …

Do…plastic…bags end up as unsightly litter, or even a hazard to wildlife? Unfortunately, this is true. But it isn't the bag's fault; it's the carelessness of the consumer who thoughtlessly discards it, even though it still has value as a container.

Then you get to another issue: What happens to these plastic bags in a landfill? From what I've heard, they'll outlast me and maybe my kids. I can remember that many grocery chains in Chicago had bag recycling programs in past years. Given the cost of resins these days, wouldn't these programs be economical in today's environment?

Finally, kudos to Target for its bags with a combination of strength and distinctive colors. The same isn't true for its Bentonville, AR, competitor with its much thinner, less durable bags, without a signature color any longer (or maybe that's on purpose, so its litter isn't so obvious).

On the other hand…I don't know…of ANY areas that collect compostable materials…we're pretty environmentally conscious in Wisconsin, but organized composting of anything but yard waste is hard to imagine. I noticed a paper grocery bag that squirrels or raccoons carted…into the woods, and at least a year later, I can still read the store's name on what's left of the bag. Our footprints are heavier than we may think. — Arnie Orloski

Another loyal converter reader (now retired and still well informed) adds his perspective:

When I was with Stone Container, I was asked to come down to Georgia and speak to the paper industry group that was composed of grocery bag manufacturers. They showed a video of the “tumbling tumbleweed.” I think we have all seen it.

As a flexible packaging manufacturer, I was amused and asked them how they compared in terms of shipping costs since a huge number of plastic grocery bags could fit on a truck? I asked them about the ladies who liked plastic bags because they could sling them over their arms to walk home or to their cars. I asked them about production techniques that created all sorts of environmental issues, not the least of which is the production of dioxin in the bleaching process for many of their products. Plastic bags are produced reasonably cleanly. Paper bags are not, and they require a large portion of virgin fiber to maintain strength. Plastic bags, when incinerated, generate the same BTU value as natural gas.

The paper guys were a little taken back by someone from within their industry asking logical questions. They quieted down a little and decided that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Unfortunately, the plastic bag industry does not have the will or perhaps the financial capacity to get the real truth out to the public. The public sees “plastic” and figures that somehow they are going to have major health problems if exposed. The problem with disposal of bags lies with the general public. The industry nor the retailers are not responsible for bags all over the countryside, the consumers are, but they are unwilling to accept the responsibility to properly dispose of or recycle the bags. I recycle every piece of LDPE and HDPE that shows up in my home. It is not hard to do. Good luck to our industry. — John Comer

The American Chemistry Council applauds efforts Chicago has made by passing legislation that mandates retailers to recycle the plastic bag (see p18). But local Chi-Town Daily News reported, “Brian Granahan, spokesman for Environment Illinois, says that while a San-Francisco-style ban is preferable, the new law is ‘a good first step.'”

We still have a lot of work ahead of us.

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