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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Times’ Pro-Plastic Bag Crusade Continues

posted by on April 9 at 10:40 AM

Continuing the Seattle Times’ ongoing crusade against a 20-cent fee for disposable bags (shorter version: What is this, Soviet Russia? But what will I put my cat shit in? And what about the poor single moms whose minimum wage we opposed increasing?), columnist Danny Westneat weighs in today, writing that since plastic bags make up just a fragment of all the crap that’s in our oceans, they’re not really worth worrying about.

Maybe you’ve heard of Curt Ebbesmeyer. He’s considered one of the world’s leading oceanic garbologists (though, as he jokes, how many can there be?).From his basement in Ravenna, he uses beachcomber reports to track the comings and goings of floating sea trash. Like dozens of rat-poison canisters that washed onto Washington shores this spring. Or computer monitors, which “always float screen up, eyes peering out of the waves.”

An oceanographer, he also named the Earth’s most shameful man-made feature, the “great Eastern garbage patch.” That’s a Texas-sized soup of plastic junk, swirling in floating clouds across the Pacific between us and Hawaii.[…]

So when I asked him what he thought of Seattle’s plan to crack down on disposable grocery bags, I was surprised when he sort of shrugged.

“It’s OK, but plastic bags are not the real problem,” he said. “It’s one little battle out of a million. Go look at what the ocean carries in on a given day. You’ll see what I mean.”

Last month, Ebbesmeyer held a “Dash for Trash” in Ocean Shores. In two hours, 50 people collected an astonishing 2,000 pounds of junk from the beach. Almost all of it was plastic — from fishing floats to shotgun shells to dolls from Japan. Yet very little of it was the plastic bags targeted by Seattle.

See? Anecdotal evidence from a single source = irrefutable fact. Banning plastic bags—whoops, sorry, charging a nominal fee for people who refuse to bring their own canvas, cloth, paper, or plastic sacks—is totally pointless. Although there’s evidence that plastic bags do make up more than just a tiny fraction of the oceanic trash gyres (in fact, they’re the 12th most common form of debris washed up on shore), the thing that drives me nuts about arguments like this is that they’re selectively defeatest. Trading incandescent light bulbs is just “a drop in the ocean,” too. So is turning down the thermostat, driving less (hell, even giving up your car doesn’t do that much for the big picture), inflating your tires, or moving to a denser, more walkable community. Every individual step is a drop in the bucket. The reason the city is proposing a fee for plastic bags is that it may make some people decide it’s worth it to bring canvas bags instead. That won’t, on its own, fix global warming or un-pollute the oceans. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

And while we’re on the subject of plastic bags and pollution, I should point out that Westneat ignores some much more significant problems with plastic bags: They do make up a huge portion of the trash in landfills, and even recycling them is riddled with problems, the first of which is that the recycling process itself pollutes the atmosphere. What’s more, the production of plastic bags for American consumption alone requires an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year. According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year—that’s throw away, not recycle. Most of those bags end up in landfills, where they take an estimated 1,000 years to dissolve. The rest end up in the air as lightweight, long-traveling litter that threatens wildlife (particularly sea life) and creates an eyesore; in South Africa, they bags are known as the “national flower.” ‘

So should we focus on other problems, as Westneat suggests—the ubiquitous plastic water bottles, perhaps? Absolutely. So will the Times, which cries “nanny state” every time the city proposes penalties behavior that’s bad for the environment, support a ban (or fee) on plastic bottles? I’m not holding my breath.

RSS icon Comments


Yes. Yes yes yes. I'm so with you on this one Erica.

Posted by Carollani | April 9, 2008 10:43 AM

Seeing as how this generates so much acrimony even here on Slog, I propose we have a drunken plastic bag debate tomorrow at Moe.

Posted by NaFun | April 9, 2008 10:45 AM

How do you get a plastic bag drunk?

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 10:47 AM

I hate large governments. I just felt that this should be said.

Its all well and good for the government to encourage behaviors such as bringing canvas bags. But, what would happen if there were a special $100 Abortion Tax and every bit of that money would go toward orphanages? Would you have a problem with that? This would encourage everybody, even rape victims, not to have abortions. Its enforcing good behavior by taxing bad behavior based on somebody's ethical code.

Posted by TheMisanthrope | April 9, 2008 10:48 AM

I agree completely. Every enviro-friendly change of habit at the individual level is just a drop in the bucket, but that's just reality, and shouldn't discourage people from changing their own behavior.

Posted by Hernandez (voluntarily stopped using plastic grocery bags) | April 9, 2008 10:49 AM

@4 - I hate incompetent ones. And anti-government people who want to tell us what to do - like Nanny State Republicans such as King George.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 10:50 AM

@3: whiskey.

Posted by Jerod | April 9, 2008 10:50 AM

What you keep ignoring is the evidence that paper bags are, on balance, worse for the environment. Getting rid of bags is good, moving from plastic to paper is a step backwards.

Posted by thefacts | April 9, 2008 10:52 AM

Erica, you are right on the money with this.

Posted by Greg | April 9, 2008 10:53 AM

@6 Are you implying I'm a neo-con and not merely a mild version of a libertarian?

Posted by TheMisanthrope | April 9, 2008 10:54 AM

@8: Paper bags should be $0.30-0.40 apiece, more closely reflecting their true cost.

Posted by Greg | April 9, 2008 10:54 AM

The sea and land pollution, difficulty recycling, and the oil consumption ECB cites are, in all seriousness, compelling arguments to ban plastic bags. That solution respects both the environment and tax/ratepayers more than inventing and administering yet another regressive city tax.

Posted by Joe M | April 9, 2008 10:54 AM

Maybe Slog should spin off a plastic bag blog to truly deal in-depth with all aspects of this pressing and obviously resonant issue.

Posted by Peter F | April 9, 2008 10:57 AM

Right on ECB! Couldn't agree with you more.

Posted by Justin | April 9, 2008 10:57 AM

You know that saying that a lie, if repeated often enough, becomes the truth? Well quit spreading the lie that plastic bags (or bottles, for that matter) are a threat to birds or marine life. There is not one single documented case of this happening. Anywhere. Really.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 9, 2008 10:57 AM

Danny Westneat is Fnarf! Who knew?

Posted by Levislade | April 9, 2008 10:58 AM

in the wake of "hils" implosion, it is good to see that erica has set her sights on something a little more within her reach.

Posted by some dude | April 9, 2008 10:58 AM

"Anecdotal evidence" from the LEADING EXPERT IN THE WORLD ON THE SUBJECT.

You know, Erica, I try to defend you, but sometimes when you come out with stuff like this you're just so spectacularly dishonest I cannot.

The bags that are the "national flower" in Africa ARE NOT THE SAME KIND OF BAG. They're much more similar to the produce bags which ARE NOT AFFECTED BY THE REGULATION.

You're like the Will in Seattle of environmentalists; here you are citing an authoritative source who is, unfortunately for you, saying the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you are.

Posted by Fnarf | April 9, 2008 10:59 AM

I spent a LOT of time in the water this winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico and I would bet that the reason bags are so low on the list of stuff that washes up is because they tend NOT to wash up. They are so light, and have no dense center of gravity, so they just kind of drift around in the wash until they get a little sand in them, and sink. I don't even remember them being AROUND when I was a kid (I'm 40). Why are they all of a sudden so...indisposable? Count on the Seattle Times to fight anything good. Won't shed a tear when that ship goes down.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | April 9, 2008 10:59 AM

Michelle Malkin would be proud of our manufactured outrage. Keep up the goood work. That's some serious hissy fitting Erica.

Again, if the Times is so unimportant, so outdated and such a sinking ship why do you focus on what they have to say so much?

Posted by Jeff | April 9, 2008 11:05 AM

@12 wtf, how is a ban (tax=$250 per detected violation or whatever) any less "regressive" than the suggested tax ($.20 per violation).

I hate how the word "regressive" is bandied about in liberal circles as if it were "QED". A gallon of milk, or a gallon of gasoline, or a pound of pasta is priced "regressively". You need to solve those problems before you complain about what a burden it is on the poor to grab a canvas bag.

Posted by nbc | April 9, 2008 11:06 AM

in this moment of history, the transition from 20th century industrialization and expansion without bounds, to conservation and efficiency (which has barely begun), i think its very important to adapt to lifestyles that are in accordance with trying to reach that future. in my idealistic world, we wont need to tax plastic bags after a decade (if the tax passes), but its a good lifestyle-habit-changing tax.

Posted by danny h. | April 9, 2008 11:06 AM

BTW, the approximately 1,000 years to dissolve is an estimate. No one knows if the damn things will degrade at all.

Posted by Gitai | April 9, 2008 11:07 AM

"According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year—that’s throw away, not recycle. Most of those bags end up in landfills, where they take an estimated 1,000 years to dissolve."

The stats you cite are meaningless without more information -- how many of those bags are filled with trash (i.e., reused) and how many of them are thrown away empty? Also, EVERYTHING decomposes slowly (if at all) in a landfill because of lack of light, water and oxygen, whether it's a paper bag or a plastic bag.

What, pray tell, do you put your trash in?

Posted by Superfurry Animal | April 9, 2008 11:07 AM

I see where you're coming from, but I do think the question of how many legislated little fixes like this it will take to add up to any significant change is worth asking. Because at a certain point public good will towards environmental concerns will begin to be eroded if there are a hundred tiny, inconveniencing laws like this one and no noticeable improvement in our environmental situation. That is one potential downside of laws that seek to enforce "environmentally friendly" behavior on an individual level. The majority of Americans do not feel the same way about environmental issues that a college-educated, liberal, bicycle-enthusiast journalist does, and those people vote.

How many 20 cent fees like this add up to the rising waters not claiming our coastal cities in the coming decades?

So if the proposed fixes A:Do little or nothing to address the larger issues and B:Make individuals feel like they are being targeted with penny-ante nanny state laws while the big polluters are getting a free pass, then it may be harder to get those people to feel well-disposed towards solutions that do accomplish something.

As far as the Times "suddenly" caring about poor people, this is just a "consider the source" argument, i.e. not really a reasonable criticism if the point being made is valid. If something is true then it is true no matter who is saying it.

I'm not particularly against the 20 "bag tax," but I do think it's essentially a feel-good measure. Broader laws dictating the sorts of materials that can be used in packaging (maybe grocery bags should all be made of biodegradable material, for instance) might work better. Many European countries have such laws and they seem to work.

Posted by flamingbanjo | April 9, 2008 11:08 AM

Why is it that all the canvas grocery bags you see are printed with stupid slogans intended to impugn the environmental consciousness of others?

In my mind, the moment you cut a silkscreen with "Green Choice - SAVING TEH PLANETS!" and a cutesy two-color Earthrise, you have entered the disposable bag business.

Posted by nbc | April 9, 2008 11:13 AM

Actually, the big question is why ECB is putting animal feces in the trash - it's illegal.


Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 11:13 AM


Right on. I don't think ECB has met a logical fallacy that she doesn't love (clearly, this is a quality that you want in a "reporter").

Meanwhile, you've crystallized the important point of the debate: this proposal is disproportionately punitive for what it accomplishes.

I think it's time for the Stranger to consider firing ECB. What good is a reporter who can't be objective or rational?

Posted by A Non Imus | April 9, 2008 11:22 AM

All plastic bottles and cans should have a $0.10 deposit on them. This way you save them up and bring them back to the store and get some cash back. It has been working in many other states for decades and it will work here, too. I am surprised that Washington State does not have this already. In those states, stores have special sections with special machines that take these cans and bottles and then spit out a receipt that you use for groceries or turn in for the cash. This way, the only people being temporarily penalized are the ones buying this product (soda/beer).

Posted by Yes Deposit Yes Return | April 9, 2008 11:22 AM

fnarf, you and other opposed this ban because you say it is trivial. but i can find numerous sources saying it is a significant problem.

while your criticism is rational -- if your version of the facts is correct -- most of the criticism about this imposed fee is not. most of the complaints center around it being a nanny-state action, or that it is somehow regressive and unfair to the poor.

if you can't convince those people on such a small measure because of bogus complaints, watch what happens when you try a significant change... can't we just say okay to this and then try for a larger change? what harm is there?

erica, your enviro tag links to stranger suggests.

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 11:24 AM

Great source material there, Infrequent. Now excuse me while I laugh myself silly.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 9, 2008 11:33 AM

Oh my God, this is ridiculous. Fnarf, nowhere did Curt Ebbesmeyer say that we shouldn't be curbing plastic bags. In fact he thought it was fine, but just too SMALL. But guess what? No one is going to agree to a ban on plastic bottles. Not now. People aren't there yet. But you *start* by banning one form of plastic that, while perhaps a small problem, is a problem. And then you move on to produce bags, plastic bottles, etc. This is not intellectual dishonesty. This is choosing a policy that will allow you to move forward to more compelling policy. How do you propose we get people on board banning plastic water bottles, when we can't even CHARGE A FEE on plastic bags?

But since we can't get people on board banning plastic bottles, then God forbid we charge a fee on plastic bags because reducing the number of plastic bags is just less than meaningless.

I know you think that plastic bags are useful. And they are. But MOST people have too many. Many people will get a bag for a candy bar at 7-11, and then will throw the bag out in the trash as they exit the store. Paying for your plastic bag makes you sensitive to whether or not you actually need a plastic bag. And Fnarf, if you really need them for your trash bins, then either pay the money, or ask for some on Freecycle. I bet there will be plenty of people willing to give you their stash of bags.

Posted by arduous | April 9, 2008 11:34 AM

So, Erica, does this mean that every time you take a position on something it can be attributed to The Stranger? Westneat is a columnist, paid to have a personal opinion.

Posted by Tony | April 9, 2008 11:35 AM

nbc@21 - fines are levied to discourage bad behavior; taxes are collected to fund a collective, deliverable benefit. So in that regard, your point argues more for a ban.

And this isn't about the poor being too lazy to bring a canvas bag. At my house, our water and electricity usage, and non-recyclable garbage is down significantly. We don't water our grass, we don't run the water when shaving or brushing teeth, we've replaced our incandescent bulbs with CF's, we've turned the thermostat WAY down, and we recycle/compost everything that's eligible. Yet our water, light and garbage bills from the city are still higher across the board. I understand the reasons why rates increase. I vote for transit, and generally support levies for education, parks, the arts and programs that help the disadvantaged. In short, I'm a do-gooder liberal who's happy to pay taxes-- and I feel like the city is taking advantage of that with this bag nonsense.

Posted by Joe M | April 9, 2008 11:39 AM
Posted by Fnarf | April 9, 2008 11:39 AM

i know! the bbc! ha! who cites them?!?!

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 11:42 AM

poptart? where are you? i thought you'd love this thread!

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 11:43 AM

I don't think it is a 'feel good' measure. I think it's a step in the right direction and will keep millions of bags out of production. That's a step. In 5 years we won't even remember why we cared so much. And wtf is up with the naysayers? Why are you getting so up in arms over the ability to create and waste millions of non-degradable pieces of plastic? There is no moral high ground on your side of the issue, so stop trying to say there is. It's an indefensible position.

@25 There will in fact be a noticeable change, as we'll see a major decrease in the number of plastic bags floating around on the highways and littering our roadsides, for one.

Personally I want a ban/tax on the plastic produce bags as well. We need to stop the plastic film and bag lobby!

Posted by NaFun | April 9, 2008 11:47 AM

Erica: The point of the column was supposed to be that we need to go much, much further than this. It wasn't that getting rid of plastic bags isn't worth doing, and it certainly wasn't a pro-plastic bag crusade. The point was that plastic bags are the lowest of the low-hanging fruit -- they are the easy part of the plastic problem -- and yet everybody's freaking out about them anyway.

Posted by Danny Westneat | April 9, 2008 11:51 AM

@36: Your source link actually goes to slog.

Posted by Jerod | April 9, 2008 11:53 AM

I'd just like to take a moment to point out the amusing irony of ECB accusing someone else of waging a crusade.

Ok, back to the bag fight.

Posted by Joe M | April 9, 2008 11:55 AM

Perhaps the Stranger should buy 200 canvas bags and send them over to Frank B as SWAG for his departing workers. Caption: I used to work at the Seattle Times.

Oh, and one for Ryan B: I inherited my ink.

Posted by Times A Changing | April 9, 2008 11:55 AM

Nevermind. I didn't realize you'd permalinked to your earlier post. My fault

Posted by Jerod | April 9, 2008 11:56 AM

Here's the website for the plastic bag lobby, btw:

your spi

The Film and Bag Federation (FBF) is a business unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI) that actively promotes the growth of the plastic film and bag industry. The SPI is the only trade association that represents all segments of our industry and the FBF is the only group that speaks for the plastic film and bag industry on both national—and regional—levels. FBF membership includes companies that are in the plastic bag segment of the industry as well as those in the film sector.

Posted by NaFun | April 9, 2008 11:56 AM

While I am for getting rid of as much plastic as possible --(you HAVE seen the "Great Western Garbage Patch" 500 mi North of Hawaii, right??)-- I have to play devil's advocate on this one. Apparently the terribleness of plastic bags was overstated by the Aussie's during their push for a ban.

Posted by treacle | April 9, 2008 11:56 AM

A lot of the rationale for being against the "bag tax" seems to be, so far as I can tell, predicated on the observation that reducing the number of plastic bags used, and therefore thrown away, won't have more than a negilgible positive effect on the environment, so why bother?

That seems to me to be a rather short-sighted way of looking at the issue. We have to start somewhere with reducing the amount of petrochemicals we consume, along with their associated environmental costs, and this would appear to be a simple, relatively easy way to change people's habits without going to such an extreme that it will cause some sort of backlash.

If people are going to insist on some kind of "magic bullet" solution to the probem of continued environmental degredation, well, the only one I can imagine is a universal global ban on new births - for say, the next 20 or 30 years or so, and that of course is completely unrealistic.

So, what else are we left with but undertaking small, incremental steps in the right direction? Yes, banning plastic bags may cause some inconvenience; yes, taxing them may be "regressive" in some instances; and admittedly it's only going to be a drop in the proverbial bucket. But jeebuz people, it's a START, and isn't that the important thing?

Posted by COMTE | April 9, 2008 11:57 AM

@8: This isn't about moving from plastic to paper. The proposed tax would be on ALL disposable bags (plastic AND paper.) The goal is to create an incentive for people to bring reusable bags (canvas, net, etc.) with them when they buy stuff.

Posted by Kalakalot | April 9, 2008 12:05 PM

When you get all worked up into a tizzy while ranting against anyone who has the audacity to see things different from yourself, do you have little sweat beads jumping off your head like in a Cathy comic?

Posted by Burgin99 | April 9, 2008 12:05 PM

@4: Good legislation should always be done with respect for the issue at hand, so your point is pretty moot.

And anyway, abortion is not considered universally bad: there's still a thriving debate. There is no legitimate, thriving debate about whether or not pollution is good for the environment.

Posted by Me | April 9, 2008 12:05 PM

I get the feeling that many respondents don't necessarily object to the fee. They object to strident, over-the-top, closed-minded types like Erica who, rather than helping their cause by encouraging rational, evenhanded discussion, only serve to drive people away with her sarcastic, shallow drivel.

Posted by tomcat98109 | April 9, 2008 12:06 PM

Maybe this is a NYC phenomena but don't you west coasters see plastic bags stuck in bare trees all winter long? They are so ugly. This alone is a good reason to charge for plastic bags. Get them out of our sight, please. This would be a very tangible result. Or you could put a deposit on them and the poor and homeless would be quite happy to collect them, along with cans and bottles.

Posted by LMSW | April 9, 2008 12:15 PM

FWIW, Seattle is a damned good city for co-op markets vs. major chain markets, compared to other cities, as far as city grocery shoppers go. Hence, I'd imagine PCC or Mad Market, for example, would go ahead and start charging for plastic bags on their own terms if it's not done in government.

It's not as if regular PCC shoppers would go "Well, that does it! I'm going to Rite Aid from now on, bichez!"

Posted by mackro mackro | April 9, 2008 12:36 PM

Not to refute Erica's point in the post at all. But I think we will start seeing a reduction in plastic bags or products via the co-ops before a Seattle or King County law. Either way, progress is progress.

Posted by mackro mackro | April 9, 2008 12:37 PM

Plastic bags don't wash up on beaches because they tend to break down into tiny particles.

Posted by plasticyuk | April 9, 2008 12:40 PM

PCC already does charge for bags, 5 cents. Not sure if that's per bag or not.

Posted by facts | April 9, 2008 1:00 PM

I thought they just refunded 5 cents for bringing a bag, not charged 5 cents for a bag ...

(note to self - used to frickin be illegal - haven't had a pet for a while - danged kids putting cat poo in the trash - stay off my lawn!)

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 1:10 PM

@ 52/53 - Whole foods (not a co-op, I know) and PCC (the one by me on 60th anyhow) have already stopped using plastic bags. They both heavily encourage (via product placement and bag refunds) use of canvas bags, although they do not yet charge extra for paper bags.

Posted by already being done | April 9, 2008 1:20 PM

I wonder how long it will take to find the link between degrading plastic and breast cancer? Plastic is not inert. Even when it sits in the environment it is degassing. And it reacts with ultraviolet radiation to make all kinds of compounds that mimic organic molecules. That's why we have three headed frogs and hermaphrodite fish. Trouble is, it takes a long time to show up, so that gives the deniers plenty of time to keep screaming "where's the proof, where's the proof"? The smart people have as little plastic as possible in their life.

Posted by crazycatguy | April 9, 2008 1:31 PM

Ah, "progressive" Seattle. I don't miss it a bit.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | April 9, 2008 2:33 PM

Ah yes. Healthy breasts! That's something that we can all get on board with.

Posted by El Seven | April 9, 2008 2:45 PM

@37 Alas, I was away from my computer this morning so I missed the start of another lovely plastic bag debate on Slog.

However, since I saw the column in the Seattle Times and since I knew it was inevitable that another debate would foment I decided to honor all the impassioned souls in the bag debate by declining a plastic bag when offered one this morning. So if you saw a woman wandering around with a griddle tucked under her arm--that was me.

Posted by PopTart | April 9, 2008 2:50 PM

bring your griddle to slog happy. it will be easier to recognize you.

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 2:54 PM

Plastic bags don't generally get recycled. If you put them in a recycling container (at QFC, Safeway, or your curbside container) they will be turned into plastic lumber, usually.
Plastic bags aren't turned back into plastic bags, and out of the great many plastic bags manufactured very few are turned in for "recycling". There's a company called Hilex Poly (or something like that) which claims to do "bag-to-bag" recycling, but they may be the only ones and if they are making bags from bags, it's a miniscule fraction of all the bags being made out there from our beloved, precious natural gas.

Posted by hairyson | April 9, 2008 3:36 PM

Maybe I'm just obtuse. I don't even get why this is an issue at all. If you want a bag so badly, pay the $.20. If you don't, bring your own bags or boxes. I never get boxes at Costco; I always bring my own bags. That's gotten me into the habit of nearly always having my own bags with me at other stores, too.

This whole business of disposable bags is a relatively new idea anyway. We managed to trade goods with one another for thousands of years without them. I think people can adjust their habits, and if they don't choose to, then they're implying that they're okay with the fee.

Don't like the fee, bring your own containers. WHAT is the big fricking deal?!

Posted by Geni | April 9, 2008 3:48 PM

@62 I can't go to Slog Happy Hour. But if I were going you would've been able to recognize me because I would've been the woman in an outfit made completely out of plastic bags.

p.s. My griddle can't go either, it'll be busy making bacon. Damn bacon thread...

Posted by PopTart | April 9, 2008 3:48 PM

I think I miss the 70's when you didn't even have to choose paper or plastic because there was only paper, and we probably reused the paper bags for a million different things.
I give up on this one, I went out and bought 11 reusable bags yesterday. The end. Simplicity is best. No stress : )

Posted by Bella | April 9, 2008 4:04 PM

Sure sounds like plastic may be a problem:

Posted by bakfiets | April 9, 2008 5:21 PM

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