Lawsuit Threatens Marin Pastic Bag Ban

The lawyer who rose to fame when he sued Kraft Foods and McDonalds for trans fats has filed a last-minute objection to delay Marin’s plastic bag ban

San Francisco attorney Stephen L. Joseph, who was not present at Tuesday’s board hearing, told the [Marin] Independent Journal his group is “doing everything that we can to ensure that decision-makers and the public know the whole truth about the environmental impacts of plastic bags, paper bags, and reusable bags before plastic bags are banned. … That is why we have pushed for cities and counties to prepare environmental impact reports before banning plastic bags.”

His objection is based on the impact studies of pro-plastic bag cities that measured the environmental impact of a paper bag:

He said an environmental report prepared for Los Angeles County concluded that negative impacts of a paper bag include 3.3 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a plastic bag; 1.1 times more consumption of nonrenewable energy than a plastic bag; four times more consumption of water than a plastic bag; 1.9 times more acid rain than a plastic bag; 1.3 times more negative air quality than a plastic bag, and 2.7 times more solid waste production than a plastic bag.

That’s a misleading study and those numbers are suspect.

First of all the study assumes a 100 percent conversion from plastic to paper, which everyone knows will never happen. People put single items in plastic. That is how you end up with 300 plastic bags used per person per year. Rarely will you see a paper bag treated the same — it is filled with multiple items. More plastic bags are used than paper per customer.

It’s more accurate to estimate a switch that results in a 50% decrease in the number of bags per person used right from the start. Recalculate the numbers and you see a drop to 1.2 times greenhouse gas, half as much consumption of energy…

Second, the penalty for bag encourages people to bring their own bags, so you see a further decline in numbers of bags. Those two points alone challenge the relevance of a Los Angeles type assessment.

More to the point, the study assumes no change in consumer behavior, which is a big assumption. A better study would be of locations where bans have been put in effect like San Francisco or even Dublin, Ireland. Together the data would probably show that paper bags also should be replaced with more environmental options (e.g. recycled paper and cloth made using renewable sources), which will help supply the demand for new and better bags (e.g. job creation). The ban on bottled water is a similar study — it has generated a healthy market for reusable water containers.

Third, a switch to composting bags does not generate the same results for an environmental report but the Los Angeles report writers purposely excluded bags that have a superior rating in environmental impact because they believe commercial composting equipment is required:

During the scoping period for the Initial Study for the proposed ordinances, certain members of the public suggested that the County should consider requiring stores to provide compostable or biodegradable plastic carryout bags as an alternative to offering just plastic or paper carryout bags. However, the proposed ordinances include a ban on the issuance of compostable and biodegradable bags due to the lack of commercial composting facilities in the County that would be needed to process compostable or biodegradable plastic carryout bags.

This is the kind of study that Joseph is pushing for? They exclude compostable bags because of theoretical behavior risks. If compostable bags were under the same microscope as paper bags the numbers would be very different…compost wins.

Where will demand for a composting facility come from if not compostable materials? In other words, the Los Angeles study is suspect for the above reasons plus…

The Los Angeles ordinances say they will not allow compostable bags because there is some chance they will end up as litter or landfill, therefore a recommendation was made to continue to allow plastic bags because they absolutely will become litter or landfill. The logic sounds severely flawed to me…as though the plastic industry lobby had a hand in writing it.

I noticed parts of the report suggest compostable bags foul plastic bag commercial disposal systems. Oh, the irony. That is an American Chemistry Council (plastic bag industry lobby) argument that somehow was written into the study as though it was a researched finding.

In fact, less than 5 percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled so risk is actually close to zero. Here are some simple examples of why this should be dismissed as plastic industry lobbyist nonsense:

  1. When you ban plastic bags there is no need to run bags through disposal systems that may be fouled by bags
  2. Compostable bags could be easily colored (e.g. bright green) so they can be easily distinguished and isolated during disposal processes

The above reasons are why I do not see the Los Angeles study as a help to Joseph if he is concerned about the environment. Maybe he is trying to point out the flaws in the Los Angeles study?

He also says Marin has not proposed strong enough financial incentive to get shoppers to bring their own bag.

While other communities are imposing at least 10-cent charges on paper bags, Marin’s law seeks just half that, and a nickel isn’t enough to persuade people to bring their own reusable bags to the grocery store, he said, noting Santa Monica has proposed a 25-cent fee.

He wants a higher fee, which seems to have worked in Ireland. They have had a plastic bag fee for almost ten years now and just doubled the cost of the bags. However, he also must know that only a few months ago Senators in California voted a plastic bag ban down because of the fee.

Republicans and some Democrats opposed the bill, saying it would have added an extra financial burden on consumers and businesses already facing tough times.

“If we pass this piece of legislation, we will be sending a message to the people of California that we care more about banning plastic bags than helping them put food on their table,” said Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest.

That quote is from Senator who represents southern Los Angeles, including Orange and San Diego counties. Reports in Los Angeles accuse Senator Walters of representing the plastics industry, which generates nearly 100 billion bags used in a year in California. Is she really worried that Californians are unable to put food on the table without a plastic bag?

A quick look at the Orange Juice Blog (representing Orange Country) shows they consider her an enemy of consumers — “the worst state legislator in California”

…the VERY WORST state legislator in terms of support for the consumer is none other than the State Senator from the 33rd Senate District, Mimi Walters. Ms. Walters had the dubious distinction of scoring 6% for the year 2009, based upon her votes on bills affecting the California consumer. This means that, out of 17 bills, Walters voted AGAINST the consumer 16 times!!! Furthermore, she is one of only two California legislators with a voting record in SINGLE DIGITS!!!

Perhaps she should have thought more about the message she was sending to the people of California. She ran for state Treasurer last year, along with with Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina (all three captured together here), and was defeated.

Maybe she did not lose only because of her plastic bag position, but I suspect politicians who take a stand against plastic bags are going to get increased consumer and retailer support, especially as we realize the $25 million a year it costs taxpayers right now to clean up the mess and $4 billion in increased goods costs.

Italy was the first country in the EU to ban plastic bags. Joseph, like many Bay Area residents, probably looks up to them and their slow-food movement. Perhaps he has a secret mission to force Marin into a stronger position on these issues — more like Italy — so he can use it to bypass the state and take it all the way to the national level. He certainly did a number on the trans fat issue.

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