Cities around Arizona are pushing for plastic bag bans similar to those rising up around the nation, but new research shows there might be no need.
Plastic bags have been under scrutiny worldwide as environmentalists warn about the possible harms of their widespread use.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, a research institute devoted to global environmental concern, Americans alone throw away about 100 billion plastic grocery bags a year. The number expands to almost 1 trillion bags worldwide.
The institute’s research suggests that these single-use plastic bags end up in landfills and other waste streams. Since there are not biodegradable, they can take anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to photodegrade, which could soak in toxins to the area they are in.
These plastic bags also find their way into oceans, rivers, storm drains and farmlands. One of the biggest concerns has been the hazardous threat posed to marine life.
“Dolphins, seals, whales, and a ton of other marine animals die because they mistake these bags floating around the water for food,” said Kaitlyn Elkind, student and co-director of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona’s Students for Sustainability.
This is a huge concern because, according to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, there are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean. Once the plastic hits the water, the decomposition rate decreases causing them to be the second biggest pollutant in the ocean behind cigarette butts.
Another environmental issue is the manufacturing of these plastic bags. Although it is widely believed that they are made from crude oil, the U.S. Department of Energy assures consumers that all plastic bags made in the United States are “manufactured from petroleum products, which include liquid petroleum gases, natural gas liquids, and natural gas.”
“Nature does not know how to break down these type of artificial bonds,” Elkind said.
This is why groups worldwide have fought to introduce different solutions to this issue. These range from a complete ban of plastic bags in grocery stores all the way to imposing a fee or tax on the use of them. Reusable and paper bags have been seen as good substitutes.
The most recent statewide initiative to ban plastic bags was in California, which passed such a ban last August. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the bill bans single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, effective July 1.
Other states around the country have not set any statewide laws for the issue, but many cities and towns are petitioning for their own. As of 2014, around 20 states have at least one town with a ban or fee on plastic bags.
Arizona has seen several attempts to take action for this cause. Bisbee is the only city that holds an approved ban. Cities such as Tucson and Flagstaff have tried to jump on the bandwagon, but have failed to get legislation approved.
The Flagstaff City Council recently discussed imposing a citywide ban on single use plastic bags, better known as “Ban the Bag Flagstaff.” Although the Council did not come to a consensus, local groups such as Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, Speak Up, and Northern Arizona University Green Jacks continue to petition in support of the movement.
Tucson also passed an ordinance against plastic bags in November of 2012. Grocery stores were required to report their plastic bag recycling numbers to the city. However, there are no mandates that must be met, only a report is needed.
“It is estimated that each person uses at least 300 plastic bags per year. Tucson has a population of 519,000 and it only takes 132,000 bags to add up to a ton,” said Francis LaSala, Tucson’s environmental manager.
Arizona does have a voluntary solution called Bag Central Station that’s been in use by grocery stores since 2007, said Debbie Roth, general manager for the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance. These stores have places for customers to recycle their plastic bags and also aim to educate consumers about recycling.
These laws are also being threatened by the growing number of groups advocating for plastic bags to stay. One problem is comparing plastic bags to paper and reusable bag counterparts. If stores cut down or eliminate plastic, then customers must choose to pay for paper bags or bring in their own reusable bags.
“There is a lot of bad information out there and unfortunately most of it is coming from the environmentalists,” Roth said about the plastic bag myths.
According to bagtheban.com, a website sponsored by Novolex, a paper and plastic substrate manufacturing corporation, plastic bags leaver a lower carbon footprint than the other options. The group said it was because “plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy to produce and 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags.”
On the other hand, paper only takes a few months to decompose and is made from trees, which are a renewable source. However, Bag the Ban shows that plastic is still cheaper to produce.
The site also states that the plastic bag industry employs over 30,000 Americans, whilst most reusable bags are produced overseas. Putting bans and taxes on plastic bags would threaten local jobs and businesses.
However, the Associated Press reported that the statewide California ban bill actually included $2 million worth of loans to local plastic bag manufacturers to begin making reusable bags. The ban also hoped to bring economic benefits from the dollars saved from plastic cleanup costs.
The topic of reusable bags has brought another issue to light. A study on the safety of these bags was conducted by David Williams, Charles Gerba, Sherri Maxwell, and Ryan Sinclair, in 2011, for their book, Food Protection Trends. After randomly selecting reusable bags from grocery store consumers in Arizona and California, they found coliform bacteria in 51 percent of the bags. Their research suggested the reason for these contaminations is linked to consumers not separating meats from produce and neglecting to wash them after use.
No bill has been introduced in this session of the Arizona Legislature this session to ban plastic.
Alexis Montano is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.