Kirkland Staff Report Advocating Plastic Bag Ban Cites Social Media as Scientific Source
Last month, Kirkland City staff released a report advocating a ban on plastic grocery bags, arguing "single-use plastic bags have proven to be detrimental to our environment and a drain on our non-renewable natural resources." The report argues a ban achieves the greatest balance of business, environmental and public benefits.
Instead of relying on science, however, the report makes a number of unsubstantiated and false claims, even citing a social media video site as a scientific source. We recently sent a letter to the Kirkland City Council, analyzing the reports many shortcomings.
There are a number of problems with the report, but two stand out.
First, the staff report argues that plastic grocery bags are increasing ocean pollution, citing the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" as evidence. Although the report admits "There is no way to know the actual size of the garbage patch," they include a graphic showing the patch reaching from Hawaii to Alaska and from the West Coast to the middle of the Pacific. The source for this graphic is listed as "Vimeo.com"
For those unfamiliar with Vimeo, it is a public video site along the lines of YouTube. In addition to whichever video included the graphic they used, you can also enjoy this offering on Vimeo, titled "Manbabies."
While the presence of plastic in the ocean is something we should pay attention to, the size and composition of the Patch are very different than Kirkland staff imply. According to experts, the Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1% the size of Texas, dramatically smaller than the Vimeo.com graphic indicates. Further, plastic grocery bags play a small role in its composition.
What's more, evidence shows that despite a significant increase in the use of plastic grocery bags, the amount of plastic in the ocean hasn't increased in decades. For example, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found "the concentration of floating plastic debris has not increased during the 22-year period of the study." This indicates that plastic grocery bags are simply not reaching the ocean in significant enough numbers to make a difference.
Second, without providing any analysis, Kirkland city staff assumes the alternatives to plastic bags are better for the environment. This is also false.
The most comprehensive study of various grocery bag options find that plastic bags actually have a smaller impact on water quality than either paper bags or reusable cotton bags. This is because it takes fertilizer to grow cotton and trees for paper. Some of this fertilizer reaches streams, accumulates and deoxygenates the water. This is known as eutrophication. In our letter to the Kirkland City Council we outline the findings of the U.K. Environment Agency, who completed the study:
Paper bags cause 6.5 times as much eutrophication as plastic bags. Reusable cotton bags create an astonishing 392.9 times as much impact. Even if Kirkland families used cotton bags once a week for nearly four years, they would still double the amount of damage they caused to water quality.
Ironically, the overall impact of alternatives to plastic bags are far worse for water quality.
These are just two of the report's many failures. You can read our entire letter here.
As we've argued many times, environmental policy often comes down to choosing feel-good policies without actually examining the science. The report produced by Kirkland City Staff is a gold-plated example of that trend.