Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bagging the Rhetoric

On July 31, Lisa Kaas Boyle, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, wrote a fact-based article for The Huffington Post on the myths of plastic recycling. Today, Mark Daniels, VP of Marketing and Environmental Affairs for Hilex Poly (a major plastic bag maker/recycler), retorted with a less-fact-based article. His industry spin compelled me to reply, both in the article, and here.

1. "We believe in educating the public about... potential dangers of reusable bags."
Suggesting that most reusable bags contain lead & other heavy metals, or contain bacteria that are a dire danger is a cheap scare tactic. If you have independent, peer-reviewed data supporting this, show it. Otherwise, it's hot air.

2. "At the crux of this plastic bag debate is the principle of consumer freedom."
If so, then surely the industry would support a small fee on plastic bags to cover the cost of cleanup for the inevitable pollution. Such a fee would help maintain clean communities and retain consumer choice. But the industry aggressively fights even a 5-cent tax whose proceeds were targeted for river cleanup.

3. "Recycling plastic reduces the use of virgin plastic."
No. You can't economically make a recycled bag from already-reheated & reformed material, it's too weak and degraded. So even if your bags were made of 100% recycled plastic, the only way to get that plastic is to pump in a steady supply of virgin film, which has to get recycled before it can be turned into a recycled bag. It's a never-ending spiral of virgin plastic.

4. "More than 800 million lbs of plastic bags and film are recycled every year."
The U.S. produces 36.6 billion lbs of #2 & #4 resin a year. 800 million lbs is 2.2% of that. Moreover, 57% of that 800 million lbs of recycled film is just exported to developing nations like China (p. 3 of the report). This percentage is climbing every year.

This deserves re-emphasis: Already, more than half of the film that we recycle has no market in the U.S. It gets dumped extremely cheaply on countries without any safety infrastructure in place. How can the argument be "recycle more" when we can't deal with what we already recycle?

5. "Sales of other, heavier gauge plastic bags soared by 400 percent in Ireland after they implemented a ban on plastic bags."
It was a tax, not a ban. And what was the original number of heavy bags used; what's the new number? Ireland cut grocery bag use by ~1 billion a year. Are you suggesting that the Irish now use 1 billion heavy-gauge bags in their place? Overall, how many tons of #2 and #4 resin are staying out of the environment because of the tax? How many individual bags? Please tell us the numbers. Saying "400% increase" by itself is useless. Apples to oranges.

6. "Plastic pollution can be cleaned out of the environment."
Egregiously false. Plastic cannot be effectively and efficiently cleaned out of the environment. The microplastics swirling in the ocean cannot be removed without removing plankton too -- the very base of the entire food web. As for what's killing marine life, was this turtle a one-off? Or these bags, pulled from a dead whale?

7. "The easier it is for consumers to recycle plastic bags, the less likely it is for them to be disposed of improperly."
Plastic can just as easily blow out of a recycling bin as a trash bin. Or a recycling truck as easily as a trash truck. Or a recycling center as easily as a landfill. Or a person's hand in a gust of wind no matter what their best-laid plans were. And even if a bag successfully runs the long gauntlet and is made into another bag, it then has to run the gauntlet all over again. The concept that a plastic bag only enters the environment if the original owner didn't mean to recycle it is ludicrous.

8. "Time for common sense legislation."
Absolutely agreed. Common sense says that small fees on a bag do wonders for the environment. It also says that if you put a tiny fee on a bag and people immediately stop using the bag, they never really loved the bag. They just used it because it was there. You talk about choice? The tiniest of taxes in Washington, DC suddenly make people realize they have a choice.

With the experience, talent, and firepower behind you, you at Hilex Poly and the American Chemistry Council could be truly part of the solution. Instead, you grasp onto an old, failed system while the world moves beyond it. The biggest of missed opportunities.


  1. Reusable bags are about as dangerous as reusable shoes

  2. I would be interested in studies (with described methods) for all of these points. Having them in my teaching "tool box" allows for appropriate inquiry. Also, peer reviewed primary article please...much more helpful. :) Thanks in advance.

  3. Teddie, that's an excellent idea. Over the past year I've saved a huge list of links for studies and facts, such as the difficulty of cleaning microplastics or for the reduction in plastic bag usage from small fees. I should definitely make that available as a supplement.

    PF - that could be the most awesome one-line take-down I've ever read. Thx for the comment.

  4. The issue on plastic materials and recycling has never found any ultimate solution. Though recycling helps in a small way, we need an alternative to lessen these wastes every year. Anyways, this was a great material, very interesting.