In defense of plastic bags

By Alison McKellar | Apr 12, 2018
Alison McKellar

To begin, I want to be clear that although I am a member of the Camden Select Board and the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Board, I am speaking only for myself. What follows is my personal opinion only and not the position of the town or the transfer station.

Yes, I know the title is controversial, but it got your attention didn't it? There has been much written about the negative impact of plastics on the environment and I assure you that I too feel frustrated by a world that seems to be drowning itself in plastic. I do not need to be convinced that plastic pollution is a problem. But when you look at the full life-cycle analysis and production chain of both plastic bags, and their alternatives, it's clear that there are no perfect solutions. When it comes to picking up poop, and trash, and wet, sticky, disgusting things that leak, smell, or spoil, plastic is tough to replace, and if I weren't bringing home the occasional batch of plastic shopping bags when I forget my reusables, I'd be buying plastic bags to do the job that paper just can't. This is just one of the reasons why am not eager to see Camden jump on board the bandwagon of banning plastic shopping bags, although I do appreciate and share in the groundswell of support I've heard from residents for acting boldly in looking for ways to reduce our environmental impact as a community.


Last month, I was proud that the select board unanimously supported a proposal from Watershed and Camden Hills Regional High School students to sign on to the Compact of Mayors for Climate and Energy, committing ourselves to making ambitious, measurable progress in reducing our community's carbon footprint. As we embark on an action plan, I believe it's imperative that we carefully consider the implications of town ordinances and policies, especially when we set policies that make judgements about the environmental impact of one product over another.


The UK-based think tank, Green Alliance, recently issued a statement warning that the war on plastics may ultimately do more harm than good, saying  "plastics are clearly a huge problem but we have concerns that legitimate public outrage will lead businesses and governments to rush into the wrong decisions. We must ensure that whatever solutions we design don't increase emissions, damage world ecosystems or result in more waste." When we ask people to change habits through state laws or town ordinances, we must be absolutely certain of the environmental benefit we seek to achieve, and in this case, there are no easy answers. There are however, some known facts and important questions that are sometimes missing from the conversation. Here are a few.


Trash from Camden does not go to a landfill.

I frequently hear people speaking about all the plastic bags piling up in landfills that will either be there forever or blow away into waterways. This is very true in states like California and in much of the United States, but in Camden, and most of the state of Maine, our household trash is not landfilled, but incinerated to make electricity. Starting this week, ours is shipped to the Ecomaine Waste to Energy facility in Portland. It does not run the risk of blowing out of landfills and into the ocean, but in fact replaces electricity made from coal, oil, and natural gas.


Paper bags have four times the carbon footprint of plastic.

On the surface, it seems that a bag that can biodegrade is better for the environment, but this only tells part of the story. In order to know the environmental impact, we have to look at how the bag is produced and distributed (commonly referred to as a life-cycle analysis or LCA). Paper bags have roughly four times the carbon footprint of a single-use plastic bag and result in 50 percent more water pollution and 70 percent more air pollution than plastic bag manufacturing. If the environmental issue that we care most about is climate change, then paper bags are not better a choice. We live in a place that is visited by many tourists who will inevitably not always have their reusable bags with them. Forcing them to choose a paper bag in the name of environmental conservation sends the wrong message. Also, don't be fooled into thinking that your paper bag is supporting the state forestry industry as most paper bags no longer come from Maine.


Reusable bags are not always more sustainable.

Take a look at where your reusable bag was made. Unlike single-use plastic bags, which are mostly made in the United States, the most common reusable shopping bags are made of plastic and imported from places like Vietnam and China. Another downside is that very few of them are actually recyclable. Their durability comes from the fact that they are reinforced with different materials like nylon thread and handles; they cannot be recycled without first dissecting the parts. Cotton and canvas bags may be even worse, due to heavy carbon footprint and high pesticide use. For more on reusable bags check out this article:


Ocean plastic comes mostly from areas with no formal waste collection.

The images of plastic masses floating in the ocean are no doubt disturbing, and many are rightly motivated to do whatever we can to counteract it, but we should start by looking at the data, and we should be wary of solutions that swap one environmental issue for another. The Ocean Conservancy reports that just five countries, mostly in Asia, are responsible for over half of all the plastic entering the ocean. Another study indicates that 10 rivers may contribute up to 90 percent of the ocean plastic. Both agree that the solution is to focus on improving waste collection in places where there is none.


What environmental problem are we most contributing to? Global warming.

The data show that while the United States is likely responsible for less than 1 percent of the total plastic entering the ocean, we are the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions per capita. To me, this means that any effort to reduce the use of plastic must not result in an increase to our carbon footprint. The garbage patches are very alarming and inspire action, but the problem we are contributing to most here in Camden, Maine, is climate change and ocean acidification, both of which present a far greater threat to marine (and human) life than trash in the ocean.


Single-use plastic bags are highly recyclable and reusable.

Hannaford and many other retailers have successful recycling programs that turn your plastic bags into new products such as decking. Before recycling, many people reuse the bags for many different purposes. If they weren't reusing their plastic shopping bags for this purpose, they'd have to buy more plastic bags to complete the task. Trash can liners, kitty litter receptacles, pet waste pickup, something to put wet bathing suits or dirty diapers in. When I forget my reusable bags, I would much rather opt for a plastic bag that I have many uses for, than a paper bag which, for me, will only get one use. A 2017 study on the impact of California's plastic bag ban titled "The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bag Sales" found that sales of small, medium, and tall trash bags increased by 67 percent, 50 percent, and 5 percent respectively after California banned single use plastic bags.


Plastic bags have a role to play in preventing waste.

Plastic bags are sometimes just a better choice, depending on the situation. They protect items from moisture and contamination in a way that paper and even reusable bags cannot. Plastic packaging helps limit the amount of food waste, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural industry. I find one example in my own life comes up when people drop off donations for Syria relief on my porch, where they wait until enough accumulates that I move it to storage. When people deliver small items loose or in paper bags, they often get wet from snow or rain blowing onto the covered porch. Items tied up in a plastic bag are protected and don't have to be washed or dried before they can be shipped. Anyone who has ever set a paper bag down in the snow knows what I mean. Plastic has also played an important role in reducing the amount of global food waste.


Plastic grocery bags are a small part of the waste stream.

Keep America Beautiful reports that the most commonly littered items in America are cigarette butts, making up 38 percent of all roadway litter. These present a danger not only due to the plastic filter but also the myriad of chemicals contained within. Food and beverage packaging in various forms makes up roughly 46 percent of all litter. All types of plastic bags (pellet bags, grocery, bread bags, ziplock, etc) account for less than 1 to 5 percent of all the litter found. That means that eliminating one category of plastic bag allows 95 to 99 percent of all the litter to remain a problem.


So what do I support?

I’ve always believed that people should pay for what they use, so I do support placing fees on both both paper and plastic bags. We have grown accustomed to free, disposable, shopping bags at the checkout counter, when the reality is that they are not free at all. Retailers build the cost into their total operating costs, even though many shoppers don't use them. In my opinion, stores should stop giving carryout bags to their customers for free just as they should stop giving out plastic utensils and napkins for free.


The decision about placing bans or fees on certain packaging ultimately rests with the voters of Camden. Unlike Rockland and Belfast where city councils have broad authority to enact ordinances like these on their own, the Camden Select Board has no such power. All new ordinances or changes to old ones require voter approval under our form of government, and while some bemoan the slow pace, it is really the purest form of democracy there is and provides many options for voter initiative and review.


Let's declare war on all types of litter. Join us April 20 and 21 for our Annual Earth Day Cleanup in memory of Leonard Lookner. The town of Rockport will be doing their cleanup the following weekend.


I've been fascinated by the waste and recycling stream for a long time and I now serve on the board of directors for the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corporation (an aspiration that actually drove me to run for the select board). For some reason though, it wasn't until I met my friend Maggie Timmerman that I began to notice all of the trash that ends up in the environment, even here in Camden and Rockport. After completing one roadside cleanup with the group Maggie started called Keep Rockport Beautiful, I began seeing trash everywhere, and when Leonard Lookner unexpectedly passed away, I knew the time was right to expand the roadside cleanups to Camden. Those who knew Leonard know he made cleaning up trash a regular habit and was fond of saying "If you see it, you own it." Some of the common items we see are coffee cups, fast food containers cigarette butts and packaging, candy wrappers, beer bottles, juice boxes, shrink wrap, styrofoam coolers, and plastic bags (but only occasionally the type of plastic bag that is targeted by these ordinances). The stuff seems to be a mixture of intentional and accidental littering. Careless children who lose things out car windows, pickup truck owners who forget that things blow away, cigarette smokers who think their butts will biodegrade, and then your more typical litterbugs who toss their beer bottles and coffee cups to avoid having them in the car.


Last year we organized two of these volunteer roadside cleanups in Camden and collected over 4,000 pounds of trash that was weighed in at the transfer station. Join us at 9 a.m. on April 20 and 21 in the Hannaford parking lot for a safety vest, trash picker and road assignment, or email to sign up ahead of time.



Comments (3)
Posted by: Charles Buell | Apr 14, 2018 15:13

Thank you, Alison, for a thorough look at the issue. Much more info than saying 'plastic bags are bad'. I generally take my cloth bags to the market. I occasionally get the plastic ones for second-use needs, and I will need to buy bags if they outlaw the 'free' ones.

Posted by: John L Hart | Apr 14, 2018 15:09

Thank you for sharing your substantial research. It is really the first "one time'" read that seems to me covers

most of the issues. But one, utility, is not mentioned. Example, late on a cold rainy and dark evening, behold

I receive via cell an important grocery list. With 4 plastic bags I can carry from store to car and from car to

kitchen with one quick trip and no wet groceries or leaky paper bags. Now, shall I shop at Thomaston rather

than Rockland or Camden ?

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Apr 12, 2018 15:15

An interesting article and I agree with it all. We must try to get recycling as a way of life but not give up trying to do better with new technology.

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