plastic bags

Plastic bags and global warming

Plastic bags are made from ethane (C2H6) which is a byproduct from production of natural gas and oil. Ethane has a global warming potential 5.5 times that of carbon dioxide according to the IPCC.

Ethane has a high heat capacity and makes natural gas too unstable to be used in industrial processes and home heating. Therefore ethane is removed and usually burned off.

A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder (see press release) finds that a steady decline of global ethane emissions following a peak in about 1970 ended between 2005 and 2010 in most of the Northern Hemisphere and has since reversed. The decline in ethane emissions after 1970 coincides with the growing widespread use of plastic bags.

Natural gas liquids

The recent increase in ethane emission could be attributed to the recent spectacular increase in natural gas production from fracking. However, another factor could be the decreasing production of plastic bags due to the banning of such use by various municipalities and other governments. California has a statewide ban on use of plastic bags. (See my wryheat article “Tilting at plastic bags” and the ADI article “Plastic Patrol: Sunday’s Comic”)

Less production of plastic bags may mean that more ethane will be burned or simply released into the atmosphere.

The University of Colorado researchers say, “Chemical models by the team show that the increase in ethane and other associated hydrocarbons will likely cause additional ground-based ozone production, particularly in the summer months.”

“There are really good things about plastic bags—they produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton. The carbon footprint— that is, the amount of greenhouse gas that is produced during the life cycle of a plastic bag—is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag. If the most important environmental impact you wanted to alleviate was global warming, then you would go with plastic.” (Source)

 

The eco-fad of discouraging or banning use of plastic bags may have the unintended consequences of increasing global warming and producing more ozone smog. It seems that “saving the environment” is complicated.

Tucson’s plastic bag brouhaha and a stupid study imposed by the city council

The proffered problem with the plastic bags we use to carry home purchases is litter. Fugitive bags are claimed to mar the landscape. Two years ago Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham proposed a fee on use of plastic bags because he’s “fed up with driving down the streets, noticing plastic bags plastered to the needles of what would otherwise be attractive desert plants.” This fee, essentially a tax on food and other items, is supposed to discourage use. It is unclear how a fee would reduce the littering problem because that is, in part, a behavioral problem. The problem is not the number of bags used; it is the manner in which the bags are disposed.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik, in his November 15, 2012 newsletter, noted: “I see far more newspapers, cans and papers blowing around than I see plastic bags hanging from cactus and otherwise trashing the City. There are clearly multiple benefits to encouraging people to clean up their own messes, and to reduce/reuse/recycle. But what was presented to us on Wednesday in the form of a change in our Plastic Bag Ordinance struck me as being an over-reach, possibly counterproductive, and not a burden we need to place on the business community and consumers without first having made a better effort at educating people as to what measures we already have in place to encourage recycling of plastic bags.” Yet, he joined all the other council members in voting to impose such overreach and imposition on local businesses.

Quoting from the Arizona Daily Star, the current quixotic council campaign is to require:

Large retailers in Tucson will soon have to train their clerks and baggers and begin educating the public on ways to reduce plastic bag usage.

The council voted unanimously to amend the city’s plastic bag ordinance in an attempt to better track, and possibly reduce, consumption.

Retailers are now subject to mandatory reporting periods when they must document the average bags used per transaction, the total number of bags handed out and the weight of plastic collected for recycling.

Retail representatives must also meet quarterly with city officials to review the retailers’ progress.

The idea is to collect data over a two-year period and see what a fair reduction goal would be for the city to set for retailers in the future.

In addition to the tracking and training requirements, retailers will have to formulate a public information campaign geared toward “school-age children” and the general public. The campaign must include contests and in-store promotions while incorporating videos and social media.

There are no penalties for not complying with the amended ordinance, which takes effect July 1.

So, we see that the goal of this grand scheme is to collect data that will somehow reduce use of plastic bags. Will that reduce litter? Will businesses comply?

From my observations, some of those fugitive plastic bags fly out of garbage trucks during their trip to the landfill. That could be solved by people using one bag to store other bags to make them less buoyant and less likely to fly out of the trucks. We can also take bags back to the recycling bins in stores from which they are transported to a special recycling plant. Plastic bags cannot be put in Tucson residential recycle bins because the city plant cannot handle them even with “A new state of the art Materials Recovery Facility” to be opened in July.

The current action by the City Council will have little impact on littering and imposes an unnecessary burden on businesses. I would think that businesses already know how many bags they use in a given time period because they have to buy them. The average number of bags used during a transaction is a meaningless statistic. The idea of a public information campaign may have some merit and it should include the options people have for disposal of bags. Perhaps that information could be incorporated into the regular City PSA announcements we see on TV regarding recycling and waste disposal.

The alternative to plastic bags are either paper bags or reusable bags, but these have their own problems:

Some people bring their own reusable bags, especially for groceries. However, bags made from non-woven polypropylene, the most commonly used material in reusable grocery bags, have been shown to contain excessive lead which can pose a danger. Also a study by Canadian microbiologist Dr. Richard Summerbell found that unless you wash reusable fabric grocery bags after each use, they can harbor unacceptably high levels of bacteria, yeast, and mold. “The study found that 64% of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than what’s considered safe for drinking water,” according to the National Post, Canada.

By the way, a British study of all types of bags found that plastic bags were superior because they take less energy and water to make and less energy to recycle, as well as taking up less space in landfills (link).

This make-work city proposal is geared toward solving the wrong problem and will just add to business expense without reducing littering. I repeat: The problem is not the number of bags used; it is the manner in which they are disposed.

 

 

Tilting at plastic bags

Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham wants to impose a fee on use of plastic bags because he’s  “fed up with driving down the streets, noticing plastic bags plastered to the needles of what would otherwise be attractive desert plants.”  This fee, essentially a tax on food and other items, is supposed to discourage use.  Cunningham’s quest will probably work as well as Rio Nuevo, the City’s grossly mismanaged attempt at urban renewal.  Just how will a fee on plastic bags solve the problem of littering?

Plastic bags are recyclable; some are even biodegradable.  According to the Arizona Daily Star, “Tucson currently requires grocery stores to provide recycling collection for plastic bags.”  Even easier is to dispose of the bags in your home recycle container.

The war on plastic bags is a current eco-fad.  Other cities charge fees, some even ban plastic bags.  But, alternatives to plastic bags present their own problems.  Paper bags pose a littering problem too and use up trees.

Some people bring their own reusable bags, especially for groceries.  But that too, has problems.

Bags made from non-woven polypropylene, the most commonly used material in reusable grocery bags, have been shown to contain excessive lead which can pose a danger.  Also a study by Canadian microbiologist Dr. Richard Summerbell found that unless you wash reusable fabric grocery bags after each use, they can harbor unacceptably high levels of bacteria, yeast, and mold.  “The study found that 64% of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than what’s considered safe for drinking water,” according to the National Post, Canada.

By the way, a British study of all types of bags found that plastic bags were superior because they take less energy and water to make and less energy to recycle, as well as taking up less space in landfills (link).

I suspect that some of the bags seen plastered to cactus needles are fugitives from garbage trucks and land fills.

It seems that Cunningham is following the second law of government institutions: “All problems will be solved with infusions of money taken by coercion from the people.” -Mark David Ledbetter

As for Mr. Cunningham’s concern about aesthetics, I have just one word: POTHOLES.