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November 11, 2009 > Plastic bags: To ban or not to ban?

Plastic bags: To ban or not to ban?

By Dustin Findley

The issue of single-use plastic bags and paper bags was discussed in Council on October 20 and is beginning to gain ground throughout the City and across Santa Clara County. It was also the subject of discussion on October 22 by the Sister City Commission. Council wants to research and examine plastic-bag recycling programs and gather information to make an informed decision.

San Jose will assess the impact of a ban, effective from 2010, on plastic and paper bags in an environmental impact report (EIR). The City of Milpitas will await those findings before adopting its own ordinances governing plastic bags. The Recycling and Source Reduction Advisory Commission will gather information, public input, feedback from affected businesses and analyze San Jose's EIR.

Some grocers oppose a ban on plastic bags as do packaging manufacturers that make them. Some people favor banning plastic bags. Other environmentally-sensitive packaging, such as Styrofoam food containers, will also be considered as the City studies the subject.

Vice-Mayor McHugh reported that there is information and speculation suggesting the costs of providing paper bags could have a more detrimental environmental effect than the production of plastic bags.

Empirical studies suggest a ban does not decrease the amount of plastic bags in the waste stream or amount of litter. Not everyone re-uses them or disposes of them in the recycle bins in stores.

Council-member Giordano asked staff to consider whether banning Styrofoam food containers would have an adverse effect on small businesses and overall future economic development and whether the alternatives to such containers are any better environmentally, in terms of carbon footprint, life-cycle and ability to be recycled.

In all areas, it is important to make sure banning is the right solution for the environment.

A representative of the American Chemistry Council, the national trade organization of plastic bag manufacturers, addressed Milpitas City Council. He suggested, along with the other items of research and study, enhancing the infrastructure for recycling.

The plastic-bag ban in San Francisco only pertains to 60 stores of certain large companies. The public perception is it applies to the entire city. According to the ACC representative, state regulations also require stores to have recycling infrastructure which many do not have.

Frank De Smidt, Milpitas Chamber of Commerce, informed the Council the Chamber feels proposed bag taxes would be detrimental to its members and agreed with the Council that further study is needed.

Mayor Livengood concluded by pointing out there are existing grocery stores that do not provide plastic bags but still satisfy their customers and conserve the environment. He asked Council to remain open-minded as they digest information supporting plastic bags.

David B. Canning, of Dogipot, the company that makes the biodegradable plastic bags available in Ben Rogers Park, offered some insight:

"There are numerous types of environmentally-friendly plastic bags, including biodegradable and oxo-biodegradable. Most biodegradable bags are made from a food source such as corn, potato, sugar, etc. These are processed into a plastic film which then biodegrades. We chose not to use biodegradable bags for numerous reasons," started Canning.

"Alternatively, we chose an additive which makes plastic bags oxo-biodegradeable. The producer may set the shelf life of these bags before the breakdown process begins.

"Once the additive kicks in, the bags begin to oxidize (breakdown by exposure to air). The oxidation process chemically alters the plastic so it isn't plastic any more. During this process, the bag becomes brittle and begins to flake. These little chemically-altered pieces then biodegrade," Canning explained. "The time it takes to decompose depends heavily on the environment and the conditions in which the bags find themselves on disposal."

The additive used in the bags in Ben Rogers Park was developed to combat the irresponsible disposal of plastics. It is ideal for litter pick-up bags and liner trash bags which usually go to landfills.

"Each of our bags emits less carbon dioxide than a leaf. The grocery store industry could utilize this technology so their bags break down. You can set the shelf life to a very short period or long one depending on intended use," Canning concluded.

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