Environment Washington Conveniently Ignores Its Own Mantra on Plastic Bags

February 15, 2012

One of the mantras frequently heard from environmentalists is "reduce, reuse, recycle." The combination of those three approaches is used because no single approach is suitable for every situation when reducing our environmental impact.

When political desires intercede, however, that simple truth gets forgotten.

Over at Publicola, Erica Barnett argues that Washington should ban plastic grocery bags because so few of them are recycled. She cites a study by Environment Washington showing that a very small number of plastic bags are recycled. She writes:

A new report from the environmental advocates at Environment Washington concludes that a main plastic- and chemical-industry claim about plastic bags—that they shouldn’t be banned, because people can just recycle them—flies in the face of what most plastic-bag users actually do. Nationwide, fewer than 5 percent of nonbiodegradable plastic bags are recycled; the rest are thrown away...

Compare that 5 percent number to the approximately 80 percent of paper bags which are recycled and the contrast appears stark. The conclusion she draws is that promoting recycling of plastic bags is fruitless and simply won't work.

What Environment Washington and Erica don't mention (or, perhaps, know), is that while the percentage of plastic bags that are recycled is small, the percentage which are reused is significant. According to the City of Seattle "46 percent of people in Seattle reused [plastic] bags for other purposes." People use the bags to pick up after their pets (which the Department of Ecology itself spent $27,000 to produce a rap video to encourage), line their trash bins and other uses. Technically, these are "thrown away," but only after being reused. In most cases, another single-use plastic bag would be substituted if a grocery bag weren't available.

By way of contrast a very small percentage of paper bags are reused in these ways. Plastic bags are simply more suited to these types of reuse than paper bags.

When you combine the reuse and recycle, the percentage of plastic bags that are simply thrown away is less than half. That may still be too high, but it indicates that the difference between paper and plastic is less than portrayed. If, the recycling rate for plastic bags could simply increase to 25 percent, the total reuse/recycle percentage for paper and plastic would be almost identical. This makes recycling a much more effective alternative than Environment Washington would like to portray because the standard of success is reasonable.

The Environment Washington report also claims that plastic bags are difficult to recycle. Ironically, there are a number of companies who do recycle plastic and they are finding better ways, due to the pressure of the free market, to recycle those bags. When they claim plastic bags can't be recycled, Environment Washington should heed this advice: "The man who says it can't be done should get out of the way of the woman who is doing it."

Like so many other environmental fads, the push to ban plastic bags has become more about symbolism than environmental impact. By ignoring their own mantra, the environmental community makes it clear that something more than environmental concern is driving their agenda.