© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Do Plastic Bags Bans Help The Environment?



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, during his long and varied career, Oscar winner Morgan Freeman has played everyone from soldiers to servants, from cowboys to criminals - not to mention the almighty. In a moment, he'll tell us what music he plays for inspiration. That's our feature we call In Your Ear, and it's just ahead.

But first, we want to talk about a newly popular approach aimed at cleaning up the environment is drawing criticism from people who believe that it actually harms the urban poor, and possibly the environment it's trying to help. I'm talking about fees and sometimes outright bans imposed by some local governments on the use of plastic or paper shopping bags.

Los Angeles is the latest city to take this kind of action. The city council there voted 13 to one last month to ban free plastic shopping bags at stores. The council called for a 10 cent charge for each paper bag. There are still some steps LA has to go through before a ban would go into effect, but a number of other cities have already moved to ban or impose a surcharge on the use of plastic shopping bags in particular, including Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

In May, Hawaii became the first state to ban plastic bags. Advocates argue that the bags limit pollution because the bags blow all over the place and find their way onto streets and into trees and into waterways. Critics say they force poor people to pay for that environmental priorities of the middle and upper class and might actually do more harm than good.

So we're going to talk about this with Michael Bolinder of the group Anacostia Riverkeeper. That's an organization that tries to clean up and protect the Anacostia River, that's one of the major waterways in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. The District of Columbia has a five cent bag tax.

Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason, that's a libertarian magazine. Writers for Reason have long criticized bag fees and taxes. They're both here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

MICHAEL BOLINDER: Great. Thanks for having us.

NICK GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So Michael Bolinder, you focus on the Anacostia River here in D.C. Can you just give us an idea of why environmentalists consider shopping bags a problem nationally and what you've seen here locally?

BOLINDER: Sure. The Anacostia River is an eight-and-a-half-mile long tributary to the Potomac River. It's one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States. As part of our approach to clean up the river, we, actually using money generated from the bag fees, we put some traps in a couple of the streams that are tributaries to the rivers and we capture trash. We take all that trash out, we measure it, we characterize it, and we've noticed that a big percentage of that trash is bags.

MARTIN: And now, since the city imposed the five cent bag tax back in 2010, what have you seen?

BOLINDER: We've seen a pretty huge reduction in bags. We can measure that two ways. One we can look at consumer use. It was about 22 and a half million bags per month in 2009. In January 2010, that dropped to three million.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BOLINDER: And then the actual characterization of the trash that we capture in our traps, it used to be that the traps were roughly 50 percent bags, now we almost never find a bag.

MARTIN: Really? OK. And there's a continuing revenue stream from the bag tax, right?

BOLINDER: Yeah. We've - since we've started the bag tax, you know, I like to call it a bag fee, not a back tax.


BOLINDER: It's optional. You can choose to use reusable bags. Since we started to collect the bag fee we've collected about $4.2 million. And when I say we, I mean the District of Columbia, not the Anacostia Riverkeeper.

MARTIN: Nick Gillespie, writers in Reason have been arguing against bag taxes and bans for years. What's at the heart of your argument?

GILLESPIE: Well, I think that, you know, when we allow municipalities or governments at any level to make decisions that really impact our consumer choices and our lifestyle choices we should insist on there being a pretty high bar for saying there's a collective need - there's a need for collective action here and that the proposed solution will actually address that. You know, something - instances of that are things like air pollution. There's no question that the single greatest thing for air quality in the United States was the mandated shift from leaded gasoline to unleaded gasoline and a couple of related things that could've been done better but, you know, it's worked pretty well.

I don't think when you look at the bag tax or plastic bags in general that the benefits address a serious issue. When you look at least nationally in places like California, you know, it's something like three-tenths. California audited its trash and it's at three-tenth of one percent of the waste stream in California was plastic bags and related objects.

MARTIN: What do you make of Michael's information here that...

GILLESPIE: Well. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that it's drastically cut down on the bags that you see in the waterways?

GILLESPIE: Yeah. Well...

MARTIN: And I also think Reason - I mean you live in the area too.


MARTIN: So just - well just, your own observation, don't you see a lot fewer bags on the street question blowing around?

GILLESPIE: Well, yeah, but I mean this is hard to say because I mean, you know, first off, I'll get to this question of the river traps. But, San Francisco, which led the nation in banning plastic bags, at the time their own audit said that six-tenths of one percent of litter in San Francisco was plastic bags. So let's say they got rid of all of that, it's not so much place - groups like Keep America Beautiful, which is very anti-plastic bag, notes that tobacco products - things like cigarette butts and cigarette wrappers, newspapers and other paper bags, are by far the largest elements of litter, which generally has also, you know - they also note that litter has decreased, roadside litter has decreased something like 60 percent over the past 40 years, basically because of an informational campaign saying don't throw garbage out the window.

Those of us who are old enough can remember, you know, the crying Indian ad. That was part of a campaign to tell people that it's really not a good idea to throw garbage out the window, which we all used to do.

MARTIN: And there's don't mess with Texas, another one of it.

GILLESPIE: Things like that. Yeah.

MARTIN: But let me just...


MARTIN: I'm going to push back on Michael for a minute.


MARTIN: But I want to ask, so what's so terrible? Give me know what's so terrible argument.

GILLESPIE: OK. Well, you know...

MARTIN: It's five cents. What so terrible?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, first off, it's, you know, we live in a world where mayors certainly, I mean, I'm thinking of somebody like Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York, who has tried to ban, you know, all sorts of things that he personally finds offensive. I mean he most recently, you know, was pushing to pass a limit on the size of soda pop that could be bought, even as he was celebrating literally Donut Day with the world's biggest box of Entenmann Donuts, you know, as a way of addressing what he claimed was an obesity epidemic.

We live in a world where politicians and governments have shown time and time again that they're interested in controlling our very basic choices. I think that, you know, you really need to show that there is a huge pressing and dire concern that needs to be addressed, and that the policy will do that. I don't think that the plastic bag ban reaches that level.

MARTIN: Well, Michael, what about that? He says it just doesn't reach that level that would require this level of government involvement in your personal choices. That's thing one. That's Nick's question. My question also comes from what we've heard when bag taxes or fees have been debated in this area. People say that it's fine for middle-class people who drive everywhere and can leave their bags in their car and pay $3 for a bag. But for people who don't have cars, rely on public transportation, to expect them to carry around, you know, bags when they're ready to shop, it just seems - it disproportionately affects some people more than others. What do you say to that?

BOLINDER: Well, on the first point, the Ocean Conservancy has been gathering data on trash collected by volunteers for 25 years, and if you - I would encourage you to go to their website and check it out. In those 25 years, plastic bags are number four on the list of trash that they have collected behind - you correctly - cigarette butts are number one. That's the most ubiquitous thing that we find on beaches and shorelines. Plastic bottles and ironically lids were number two. Lids and caps are even higher than bottles.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BOLINDER: But plastic bags make up a really significant amount of the trash that we collect. And...

MARTIN: And what about the idea that it disproportionately, it's a disproportionate burden on a particular group of people? What about that?

BOLINDER: Well, I'm not blind to the fact that our nation has a really shameful history of doing horrible things to vulnerable people. And Anacostia Riverkeeper makes a point to look at environmental justice and weave that into the fabric of every decision that we make, and a lot of the work that we do in restoring the river is focused directly on environmental justice. But if I'm a, you know, if I'm a consumer here in Washington, D.C., I make 65 trips a year to the grocery store and I get, I bring home six bags, that's 390 bags. At five cents a bag that's $19.


BOLINDER: In fact, it's such a low number that the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index they don't, you know, they measure everything. They have this relative metric where they measure the relative impact of the rising or falling cost of things as it relates to the CPI and bags aren't even on that list.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about taxes, fees, intended to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags, in particular, shopping bags in general or single-use shopping bags in general. Our guests are Michael Bolinder of the Anacostia Riverkeeper. That's an environmental group here in Washington that supports and actually gets revenue from the bag fee that exists in Washington, D.C. Nick Gillespie is editor of the libertarian journal Reason. And that's a journal that's been that's been opposed to these for a long time.

So Nick, I'm going to push you again on what's-the-harm question...


MARTIN: ...because you raise that kind of the air pollution question. The argument that environmentalists make is these are irreplaceable resources, like clean water, clean air, you know, everybody needs those. And this is, if there is any area in which some governmental involvement is appropriate it is this because no individual on his or her own can protect this resource, and that everyone suffers if this resource is damaged beyond repair. To that end, people say well, five cents, what's the harm?

GILLESPIE: Yeah. Well, I...

MARTIN: Tell me.

GILLESPIE: I mean, you know, and this comes down to a question of, you know, potentially not necessarily even differing values but differing valuations. To go back to something that Mike said, the city of Santa Monica when it was looking at a bag tax - and Santa Monica, I've lived in California. I've lived in Los Angeles. Santa Monica is very, very up on, you know, what we can possibly do to get rid of the last nanoparticle of anything that might be perceived as pollution. But they concluded that banning plastic bags would have absolutely no impact on their environmental situation, including in which includes a lot of waterfront.

So again what I'm saying, you know, you're question is what's the harm? It's only a nickel or it's only 19 bucks or 20 bucks a year or something like that. My question is - partly is, what's, you know, what's the good? And if in fact plastic bags don't make us that much of the waste stream, that plastic bags are not causing that many problems, why does the government, why is the default that the government can come in and say hey, you know what? Do it this way. Do it our way rather than your way or hit the highway. I think that's problematic.

MARTIN: Michael, how about the argument, there's an argument that plastic bags are actually better for the environment than paper or reusable cloth bags, you know, that accounts for all kinds of things. You know, the fuel to ship in and to transport, you know, heavier bags and so forth. That plastic bags are actually used, reused for a lot of different things, that they're more sanitary and so forth. What - have you ever evaluated that question and what have you make of it?

BOLINDER: Wow, I haven't personally evaluated that question, no. But, you know, environmentalists and regular consumers are free to make choices and, you know, I choose to use reusable bags and we choose to encourage other people to do that as well.

MARTIN: And what about Nick's argument that it's just too high a price to pay for too little benefit?

BOLINDER: I, you know, I understand that there's like a triage of pollution that exists out there. Plastic makes up a really significant amount of the trash that's in the oceans and in our individual waterways. You know, we can sort of kick around facts..

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.


BOLINDER: Ninety-seven percent of Laysan Albatross chicks that were found dead by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, they all had plastic in their stomachs. Here in Washington D.C., we have nesting ospreys and bald eagles, and if you go check bald eagle nest or osprey nests those nests are literally, they're woven together by plastic bags and those plastic bags wind up in the bellies of the young.

MARTIN: Hmm. Nick, we have a minute left, and I gave Michael the first words.


MARTIN: I'm going to give you the last word. What's your better idea?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, my better idea is to if we want to, you know, first off we've been reducing litter. We've been reducing roadside litter tremendously - even Keep America Beautiful says that, and we've been doing that through informational campaigns largely.

Plastic bags are a technology that are useful, people like them because they're cheap and they're actually pretty good at what they do. They use much less resources than they did even 20 years ago. And I think everybody should recognize everything is tradeoffs. And, you know, Ireland in 2002 passed a plastic bag ban. There was a rebound effect after use going down. People ended up buying heavier thicker plastic bags in order to, you know, clean up after their dogs, line their bird cages and they've had to increase their bag tax.

MARTIN: Well, this has been a rich conversation and I thank you for that. And I also apologize for the plastic bottles of water that I just handed to you. I should have given you both a ceramic cup. I'll do better next time.


MARTIN: Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason magazine. That's a libertarian journal. Michael Bolinder works Anacostia Riverkeeper. That's a group that tries to protect and support the Anacostia River here in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

BOLINDER: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.