Should flimsy plastic bags be banned or taxed?
Bags are ruining crops and harming livestock
It’s bad enough that plastic bags scattered across a farm field ruin the bucolic view of Virginia’s farmland. But what farmers strongly object to is that they pose a threat to their animals and machinery.
Livestock have died after ingesting plastic bags they find in fields, and thousands of dollars of damage has been done to farm equipment. In addition to the damaged equipment, plastic bags pose a safety hazard to farmers who are trying to remove them from the machinery.
Additionally, for the state’s cotton producers, the plastic bags create an economic problem when they get caught in cotton balers and go unnoticed at the gin. The plastic gets shredded into cotton fiber and is not found until finished textiles are inspected. Plastic particles won’t take a fabric dye and leave a white streak. The cloth ends up useless, and a farmers’ ability to sell more cotton is jeopardized.
All of these problems are easily remedied by using alternatives to plastic bags.
That’s why the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s members approved policy supporting legislation that would encourage all retailers to use paper or reusable bags.
Virginia Farm Bureau producer members have supported proposed legislation sponsored by Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, in the past. That, and similar legislation sponsored by Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, called for a tax on consumers who opt to use plastic bags. Stores imposing the tax would keep a percentage, and the rest of the money would go into the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund.
The fact that legislators from three diverse areas of the state support the tax indicates statewide concern about plastic bags. Unfortunately, that legislation was defeated.
Farm Bureau policy also supports enforcement of existing litter laws, which classify disposing of trash on public or private property as a misdemeanor, punishable by jail time up to 12 months and fines of up to $2,500. The state’s largest agriculture advocacy organization also supports increased penalties for littering.
The problem is, plastic retail bags are nearly weightless and can travel great distances. So trying to determine who has littered is virtually impossible.
It is sometimes unintentional littering, but plastic bags still cause problems for virtually every kind of farmer. And in today’s reduce-reuse-recycle world, it’s time to pursue options other than plastic bags.
Stoneman is associate director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
Better to recycle plastic bags than to ban them
To the untrained eye it might look like a growing coalition of environmental groups are pushing bans on plastic bags throughout the country. Only a small number of communities in the United States have even considered a bag ban.
We need to make sure that the environmental, health and economic facts supporting the case are understood. When the public gets the facts — and not just emotionally charged imagery — it will come to the same conclusion that we’ve always known: Plastic bags are the best choice at checkout and should not be restricted.
The economic case is on our side at every level of the value chain. The plastic bag industry supports more than 30,800 U.S. jobs. These jobs often support an innovative sector of the green economy. Additionally, for each one of these manufacturing and recycling jobs, the plastic bag industry creates an additional two support jobs; that is more than 60,000 American jobs that supply cartons, color concentrates, inks, transportation and local industry supply support.
The alternatives — paper and reusable bags — are in fact far worse for the environment than plastic bags because they have more impacts relative to greenhouse gases, water usage and landfills.
It’s counterintuitive that some environmentalists have targeted plastic bags, which are made from natural gas in the United States, and not paper, which comes from trees. Greenhouse gases emitted during paper bag production and transportation far exceed those released in plastic bag production. Additionally, because paper bags are seven times larger than plastic they require seven times as many trucks on the road to transport.
As for reusable bags being the answer to the world’s environmental problems, studies have shown otherwise. Cloth reusable bags require massive amounts of energy and chemicals to produce. According to a University of Oregon study, a quarter of the pesticides used in this country are used on cotton. Cloth reusable bags require so much more energy to produce than regular plastic bags that they need to be used 131 times to be as environmentally friendly as a plastic grocery bag used once, according to a U.K. government study.
Finally, when environmentalists justify attacks on plastic bags as an attempt to prevent litter, they ignore the fact that all plastic bag litter accounts for 0.6 percent of items littered throughout the nation and 0.5 percent of the solid-waste stream. That said, no amount of litter is ever acceptable, and the plastic bag industry is focused on recycling used bags and wraps as a progressive avenue to alleviate even this fractional amount of litter.
Opponents of plastic bags rely heavily on emotional appeals because the science simply isn’t in their favor. As is often the case, the best way to move this debate in the right direction is to defuse the misplaced emotional energy with facts that stand the test of scientific legitimacy and are not just emotionally and visually compelling. If communities have the full facts at their disposal, they will choose recycling over bans on plastic bags.
Roth is director of government affairs for the Virginia Retail Merchants Association.