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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: A statewide plastic bag ban doesn’t make sense

To hear some politicians talk, plastic bags are among the world’s worst inventions. In Olympia, a Senate committee has endorsed a statewide prohibition against stores providing customers with single-use plastic bags. Shoppers then could pay a 10-cent fee to get a paper or reusable plastic bag.

There is no question that plastic bag bans are a trendy environmental cause. California, much of Hawaii and numerous cities in Washington and elsewhere have adopted such bans. But as with many causes, the facts do not support the fervor.

The rationale behind SB 5323 is that if plastic bags were eliminated, they would not wind up in the ocean, rivers and other places where they potentially harm marine animals and other wildlife. Each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic flow into the world’s oceans, where it breaks into microparticles that can plug the digestive systems of marine animals, killing them.

Yet only a small amount comes from the United States, and even less of that from plastic bags.

Plastic pollution is a legitimate issue. But the problem is not that stores provide single-use bags; it is that some people litter or don’t dispose of them properly. Littering is Washington’s primary source of plastic pollution because properly disposed of garbage goes into landfills or incinerators. A recent Spokesman-Review story noted, “Film plastic, the type used in plastic bags, made up about 6 percent of Eastern Washington’s waste stream from 2015 to 2016.”

Twenty-seven cities in Washington already regulate plastic bags, and some lawmakers see a statewide ban as a logical extension of those policies. However, this is one more example of Western Washington trying to control Eastern Washington. Only one of those 27 cities – Ellensburg – is east of the Cascades.

Eliminating single-use plastic bags and charging for other bags will achieve little change in global pollution while imposing significant costs. In the beach cleanups conducted by the Ocean Conservancy during 2017, the most plentiful type of plastic pollution was cigarette butts. Cleanup volunteers picked up more than 1.86 million of them.

The irony is that by banning plastic bags, politicians would harm the environment in other ways, once one factors in pollution, water use, toxic byproducts, carbon emissions and other impacts.

Backers of a ban tout reusable cloth bags, generally made of cotton, as a prime alternative. Cotton production is linked to water pollution, with one cotton cloth bag equivalent to the pollution of 300 plastic bags. Furthermore, most people do not regularly clean their reusable bags, allowing bacteria to build up. Those bags eventually end up in the garbage because they are not recyclable. They are made of multiple materials and taking them apart for recycling would be too expensive.

Advocates of banning single-use plastic bags cite their low recycling rates. Those statistics fail to take into account that consumers reuse the bags for countless purposes, such as lining wastebaskets, packing lunches, storing items or picking up after pets. Some other bag would replace them.

In 2017, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency studied the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of the production, use and disposal of various grocery bags. Traditional plastic bags were the most environmentally friendly.

It is true that plastic bags are difficult to recycle in the traditional sense. They clog the machinery at recycling centers and often wind up in the garbage. Emerging industries, however, are recycling those old bags into new plastic bags and into patio furniture, water pipes, plastic decking and other products. Some plastic products also are compostable under the right conditions.

Similarly, the six-pack rings invented in the 1960s to hold beverages are evolving into compostable, edible, recyclable and other environmentally friendly packaging. Consumer demand and market opportunities drove the research that led to those changes. The nation’s largest chain of supermarkets, Kroger’s, now plans to phase out plastic bags by 2025.

The lesson is that the consumer market will work to address environmental issues, if we let it.

It is noble that politicians want to do something about plastic-bag pollution. But lawmakers should temper their fervor with an understanding of the full implications.