TWO VIEWS • Are plastic grocery bags a menace or recyclable convenience? Proposed ban generates brisk debate
Oregon has a strong legacy in leading the nation in combating litter and being a steward of the environment. This is an important tradition that we want to support, particularly in coastal communities where marine debris and litter can pose a risk to delicate ecosystems. Unfortunately, in this legislative session, pursuit of this goal has led to policy recommendations based on misinformation, as is the case in the debate around plastic grocery bags.
Right now, Oregon legislators and community advocates are debating a policy to ban plastic bags and impose a minimum nickel tax on paper bags. This has led to a productive dialogue on the merits of the legislation and how best to achieve the stated goal: reducing litter. However, in news coverage and in the hearing rooms of the state Capitol, it's clear that important facts are still being lost.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to testify on this issue and address these misperceptions. As vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly, the largest plastic bag manufacturer and closed-loop plastic bag recycler in the U.S., my goal is to help ensure we're engaging in a fact-based conversation - and that we are part of the solution.
Here are a few unknown facts that can affect the policy debate:
• Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable. It's a misperception that plastic bags cannot be recycled in the United States. Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable and are being recycled. Hilex Poly knows this firsthand, as we operate one of the largest plastic bag recycling facilities in the country. The technology exists to recycle plastic bags, newspaper wraps, garment bags, and all forms of plastic film wrap - and we're using it.
• Nine out of 10 Americans reuse plastic bags for many home conveniences such as trash can liners, lunch bags and picking up after pets. The plastic bags you currently get for free at the check-out counter are certainly reusable and alleviate the need to purchase plastic bags for the same home utility.
• The vast majority of plastic bags are made in the U.S. from clean, abundant natural gas. A common myth often stated about plastic bags is that they are produced with petroleum. In fact, plastic grocery bags produced in the U.S. are made from natural gas - not oil - and are 100 percent recyclable. On the other hand, most reusable bags are not recyclable and are made in China using foreign oil.
• Plastic bags are a small fraction of the litter stream. Another allegation often made is that bags are the primary cause of litter. This is also false. Plastic bags make up less than 2 percent of all litter, and 0.5 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A recent beach cleanup by Oregon's SOLV team showed that plastic bags were only 4 percent of the haul.
• Plastic is a green alternative at the checkout. Plastic bag manufacturing is often mistakenly identified as having a larger carbon footprint than paper bag manufacturing. As confirmed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, plastic bags actually have a lower carbon footprint than paper ones - which use 17 times more water to produce and create five times the pollution. Moreover, plastic bags generate 80 percent less waste than paper bags, and take up less space in landfills.
• Grocers get paid by the bag tax. Finally, it has been stated that the Oregon ban won't benefit grocers or hurt the pocketbooks of consumers. The truth is, if the policy goes into effect, grocers will benefit from the additional sale of reusable bags, and each time a shopper visits a supermarket and forgets to bring a reusable bag, customers will be forced to buy yet another one - or two, or five. A portion of taxes collected will be returned to each grocer.
Hilex Poly is interested in being part of the solution - and that's one of the reasons we've chosen to engage in this dialogue. If the goal is for Oregon to address a litter problem, we believe a more sensible and responsible solution is greater recycling - not a ban.
Establishing an aggressive and accessible recycling program enables Oregon to support a green economy solution, and we at Hilex want to help create those opportunities. Instead of imposing a ban, Oregon has the opportunity to lead the nation again by developing smart policies that make recycling of plastic bags and wraps part of our daily lives. The technology exists. It can be done. We at Hilex stand ready to help.
Mark Daniels is vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly, the largest plastic bag manufacturer and recycler in the United States.