Plastic Bag Wars Are Heating Up in the U.S.

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Local governments are being seduced by a petrochemical industry that's more lucrative than ever.

The plastic bag wars are getting fierce. As people become more aware of the extent to which single-use plastics are polluting the world’s oceans and hurting wildlife, there is increasing pressure on municipal governments either to ban outright or impose a small fee on items such as plastic bags, foam takeout containers, disposable water bottles, and straws.

These excellent progressive steps have been taken by cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., as well as the states of California and Hawaii, among others. But there’s a less-impressive flipside to these bans, which are states and cities banning bans on single-use, disposable plastics.

The plastics industry is not happy about the growing environmental pressure and is pushing to prevent all bans and fees. It happened in Michigan last year, where a bill now “preempts local ordinances regulating the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.” The governor of Minnesota did the same in May, killing a plastic bag ban that passed in Minneapolis the year before. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports, Pennsylvania is facing a similar corporate-backed ban on bans:

“The Republican-led House and Senate passed a measure with support from Democrats that would prevent bans on plastic bags statewide. Supporters said the bill would preserve 1,500 jobs at 14 facilities in the state that make or recycle plastic bags. While no city in Pennsylvania has enacted a ban on plastic bags, the idea has been proposed in the past by officials in Philadelphia. The bill would pre-empt such laws and make the state more attractive to companies considering relocating there.”

Much of the intense corporate pressure can be attributed to the fact that the plastics industry is hotter than ever. Dow, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell are racing to build enormous factories, many along the Gulf of Mexico, in which to make plastics from the cheap byproducts of the oil and gas unlocked by shale drilling. There’s big profit to be had, according to another Wall Street Journal article:

“The scale of the sector’s investment is staggering: $185 billion in new U.S. petrochemical projects are in construction or planning...The new investment will establish the U.S. as a major exporter of plastic and reduce its trade deficit, economists say. The American Chemistry Council predicts it will add $294 billion to U.S. economic output and 462,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2025, though analysts say direct employment at plants will be limited due to automation.”

No wonder these companies are so desperate to stop environmental measures from gaining traction. They are pouring money into the construction of hugely expensive, brand-new facilities, while expecting to make far more by selling plastics to burgeoning middle class markets in the U.S. and Latin America, specifically Brazil.

As someone who’s lived in Brazil, it makes me sad to hear this. The pollution problem is already so huge there, especially in the poverty-stricken northeast, and everything comes in disposable plastic packaging. Recycling infrastructure consists of human garbage-pickers, or catadores, who sort through the landfill sites for plastics that can be resold.

trash in Recife

© K Martinko -- A typical street corner in Recife, Brazil, where a sign ironically says, "Throwing garbage is prohibited."

We haven’t reached that level of pollution here in North America, so it’s easy to deny the implications of it, or perhaps we just do a better job at hiding it. But the point is that the plastics industry should not even exist on the scale, nor for the purposes of packaging, that it currently does. It’s utterly destructive, from the moment at which shale drilling occurs to the immortal plastic bottle drifting through the seas for centuries. To use plastic for single-use purposes is deeply unethical.

Corporate-backed legislation may seem like an insurmountable barrier to progress, but, as has always been the case, change can and will occur at a grassroots level. (This is the hopeful conclusion of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything.) These companies respond to consumer needs and desires, which is why effecting change on a personal level does matter.

While municipal bag bans, the zero-waste movement, and anti-straw campaigns are miniscule when faced with the construction of multi-billion-dollar petrochemical facilities, remember that these alternative movements are far more noticeable than they were only five years ago – or even a decade ago, when they didn’t exist yet. The anti-plastic movement will grow, slowly but steadily, until these companies cannot help but pay attention.