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The Unintended Consequences of Plastic Bag Bans

The Unintended Consequences of Plastic Bag Bans

the unintended consequences of plastic bag bansLove ‘em or hate ‘em, plastic bag bans are here to stay for at least the foreseeable future. In our company, not a day goes by that we’re not advising a customer on how to make their store bag program compliant with their local disposable bag ordinance. It’s just the new reality in the retail and restaurant world.

I think many people, including me, support significant restrictions on the use of plastic ‘t-shirt’ style bags. The bags really do end up in our trees and waterways and they will never be recycled at a significant rate until the major municipal recycling companies (Waste Management, Veolia, etc.) begin accepting plastic bags in their curbside recycling programs.

Many plastic bag ban ordinances are so broadly written that they create unintended consequences for businesses in their communities that have done little or nothing to contribute to the ‘t-shirt’ bag problem. Here are a few:

1.    Specialty retailers are not the reason our trees are full of plastic bags.

I recently did a survey of the types and quantities of bags used by the 18 customers that we have in a nearby community that is considering banning plastic bags. Here is a summary of the results:

  • 11 of the 18 stores already use recycled paper bags.
  • 2 of the stores use paper ‘euro-style’ bags.
  • 4 of the stores use high end, specialty plastic shopping bags.
  • None of the 18 stores use plastic ‘t-shirt’ bags.
  • The average number of bags given out to customers by these stores each year is approximately  4,500 bags.

The same city did their own survey and found that major drug stores, big box stores and grocery stores in their community distribute between 500,000 and 1,000,000 plastic bags to their customers annually. That’s clearly where the cheap t-shirt problem originates. And just as clearly, specialty retailers contribute almost nothing to this problem.

The good news is that a few cities with bag bans have begun targeting their ordinances towards the real culprits. The City of Los Angeles’s plastic bag ban ordinance that went into effect in January 2014 only includes large grocery stores, drug stores and convenience stores. It’s a well thought out strategy—target the problem and leave the innocent businesses in their community out of it.

2.    Retailers that have been using recycled paper shopping bags for a long time are penalized when broad spectrum plastic bag bans are passed.

Almost all plastic bag bans around the country allow businesses to continue to use paper bags made from paper that contains at least 40% post consumer recycled content and is 100% recyclable. These ordinances also require specific ‘labeling’ on recycled shopping bags detailing the percentage of post consumer recycled content in the bag, where it was made along with the manufacturer’s name and that the word ‘Recycled’ print prominently on the bag.

For the last couple of years, our factories have been incorporating this required labeling into the designs and printing plates for new orders of recycled paper shopping bags. However, for our customers who have been using recycled paper bags for years have already purchased printing plates and updating their bags to include the required labeling means purchasing new printing plates. For simple print jobs, that cost may only be $100 or less per bag size. But many of our customers use their bag design to enhance their branding with extensive overall printing and multiple colors of ink. 

In these cases, new printing plates may cost them several hundred dollars per size of bag. And for what? These specialty retailers were already using a recycled paper shopping bag that is compliant with their city’s bag ordinance. Again to my earlier point— leave the little guys alone and target the retailers causing the problem.

3.    No one knows why some of the requirements for allowable bags are included in these plastic bag bans.

Virtually all plastic bag ordinances allow the use of bags that are designed to be reusable and that meet the ordinances’ definition of a reusable bag. As stated in many of the ordinances, one of the requirements to be defined as a reusable bag is that the bag must have a minimum volume of 15 liters. I’ve done a lot of digging into why 15 liters is used as the minimum volume number and I’ve found no logical reason for using that number as a volume break point.

We have a customer that uses three sizes of a heavy gauge, high density plastic shopping bags with handles. The bags were sent to an international testing service to be certified as reusable based upon the requirements in their city’s ordinance. All of the bags passed the reusable requirement of being able to carry 22 pounds 175 yards 125 times. However, the smallest bag which measures 8”wide x 12”high x6” deep only has a little more than 13 liters of volume so it does not meet the definition of a reusable bag under this particular city’s ordinance.

This bag will have to be redesigned (made larger) to comply with the city’s volume requirement.  At the end of the day, that’s an additional cost for this retailer for what appears to be no good reason. I’ve reached out to officials in their city and asked why the 15 liter requirement was included in their ordinance.  No one knows.  And again, another expense incurred by a retailer who was already using a bag that was compliant.

The solution to these unintended consequences is really simple—when writing these ordinances, cities need to take the time to make sure that they include businesses in the ordinance that are distributing the plastic t-shirt bags that created this problem. But just as importantly, they need to make sure that they don’t include the businesses that had nothing to do with the problem.

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