, Newburyport, MA

July 16, 2013

Breaking the plastic bag habit

Newburyport Daily News

---- — The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority must be relieved. Suddenly, it seems everyone has stopped talking about the NRA’s controversial waterfront plans, and instead the talk has turned to something that’s really blowing in the wind.

Plastic bags.

A local group called Citizens for Sustainable Bagging is proposing that Newburyport either ban plastic bags or require people pay a fee for them. At this point it’s just a proposal without any local government support, but it has quickly become the talk of the town.

It has its supporters and its detractors, both of which can point to various statistics and examples to make valid points.

We’re not in favor of punishing consumers or local businesses by banning plastic bags and forcing them to find alternatives. Some of the “green” alternatives are actually worse than plastic bags. We’d prefer to see people take their own initiative, with a little help and encouragement, to wean themselves off plastic bags.

There’s no doubt about it — plastic bags are very convenient, lightweight and handy. But they are also incredibly wasteful, requiring massive amounts of energy to produce. It’s estimated a half trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide, each year. As we continue on our habit of consuming oil and natural resources at a rapid pace, it makes sense to get smart about reducing waste.

There are plenty of statistics on plastic bags out there. Here’s some that we found interesting:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported it takes about the same amount of energy to produce 13 plastic bags as it does to move a car 1 mile.

The same bureau reports paper bags are far worse than plastic bags, in terms of the amount of energy and natural resources required to make them. The carbon footprint of paper bags is 70 percent greater than plastic bags. Paper bags are a bad alternative to plastic.

Stanford University reports that recycling three plastic bags saves the equivalent of a shot glass worth of oil. Yet very few plastic bags are recycled; 90 percent end up in the trash.

Recycling, Stanford notes, isn’t a great solution either. It requires significant amounts of energy and resources to recycle plastic bags.

So we should use re-usable cloth or canvas bags, right? The United Kingdom’s Environmental Agency found that producing one cloth bag consumed the same amount of energy as producing about 100 plastic bags. But people tend to use them only about 50 times, so they are actually more wasteful than plastic bags, the study concluded.

The only bag that seems to stand up to the “green” test is the reusable polypropylene or polyester bags that are often found for sale in supermarkets for $1 or so. They take about the same energy to produce as 11 plastic disposable bags, but they are durable enough to use 50 or more times.

Instead of a ban, we can envision a nice marketing opportunity for Newburyport. Certainly there’s a business or businesses in town that would be willing to pay for the production of these “green” reusable bags, with a Newburyport logo and the sponsoring business logo on it. These bags could be handed out and their use encouraged. Newburyport has enough panache to make these bags popular.

And the focus should be on where the real problem lies. It isn’t the downtown stores. It’s the supermarkets.

The Australian statistics bureau estimates that a typical family brings home 15 plastic bags from each grocery shopping trip. At one trip per week, that’s almost 800 bags per year. Multiply that by the 4,000 or so households in Newburyport, and the number of bags blossoms to 3.2 million per year. The numbers go up fast.

There’s plastic bag bans occurring in various places around the country and the globe. It’s not such a black-and-white solution. Newburyport can do it better and smarter.