Minneapolis to debate banning the ubiquitous plastic bag

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Plastic bags litter a vacant lot on St. Paul’s west side after the snow melt.

“Paper or plastic?”

You hear the question a dozen times a week, as clerks perform their ritualistic exchange. The placing of objects into the bag is but the cherry on the shopping sundae, a final gesture signifying closure.

But the age-old question about which is better might be ending in Minneapolis, as the City Council prepares to debate a citywide ban on the ubiquitous plastic bags. For proponents, the ban would be a small but firm step toward reducing waste and trash, an attempt to nudge shopping habits in a more sustainable direction. And it attacks the all-too-common enemy, the plastic bag blowing in the wind.

St. Louis Park proposed a plastic bag ban last year but it’s currently on hold.

Where do plastic bags come from?

You probably know the famous line from “The Graduate,” where the businessman pulls a young Dustin Hoffman aside at his graduation party, and tells him:

“I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening?”

“Yes sir,” mumbles Hoffman’s character.

“Plastics.”

The Graduate was made in 1967, when plastic was a triumphant sign of progress. And the businessman was right; plastics have formed the future in which we find ourselves.

Here’s the skinny. Almost all the plastic bags you use every day are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a petroleum byproduct that became a revolution when engineers at Phillips Petroleum figured out how to catalyze its efficient production in 1951.

Because petroleum byproducts are so readily available, the great advantage of HDPE plastic bags is their cheap and efficient production. For example, check out a plastic bag factory in action: HDPE is turned into pellets of polyethylene resin that look like tiny beads, which are heated to about 400 degrees to become a film as thin as 2/10,000ths of an inch. The plastic is then cooled and rolled into giant tubes to be marked or colored with alcohol-based ink (e.g. “Have a Nice Day” or “Thank You”/ smiley face). Finally, the bags are heat sealed and cut and delivered in bulk to the store, where they’re handed to you with each purchase.

Much like the great “concrete vs. asphalt” war, the debate between paper and plastic has ups and downs. In comparing “upstream” manufacturing, plastic bags are a clear winner over paper, which requires far more energy to produce.

Downstream, however, the fundamental problem is that plastic bags inevitably escape and gather. HDPE takes something like 1,000 years to biodegrade, and just one factory like the one in the video above can produce 1 billion plastic bags per day. No matter how inconsequential each bag might be, the law of numbers means that tiny plastic bags quickly accumulate into a massive problem.

The case against the plastic bag

“Today, there is more mass of plastic in the oceans than of fish,” said Robin Garwood, the aide for Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon, one of the ban’s two co-sponsors. “This is one small step towards doing something about it.”

According to Garwood, there are four big reasons cities should eschew one-time plastic and paper bags: litter, waste prevention, upstream lifecycle (reducing use of energy-intensive paper bags), and recycling.

“Once a plastic bag gets into the environment, it’s always going to be there,” Garwood said. “Very small percentages of plastic bags get recycled, and most end up in garbage burners or landfills. The last issue is that plastic bags mess up the single-sort recycling stream. Recycling facilities have spinning parts that allow paper to fall through, but plastic bags wind around them and have to be cut off by hand.”

Photos by Robin Garwood
Robin Garwood has been collecting pictures of what he calls “tumblebags” from around Minneapolis streets.

After prompting from Gordon, Minneapolis’ Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) took began to study the issue last year.

The Minneapolis ban vs. those in other cities

“We researched cities of similar size with bans, like Seattle, LA, Chicago, DC, and Portland,” Anna Abruzzese, who chairs the CEAC, told me. “All have slightly different models. The underlying goal is to reduce waste.”

Different cities’ tactics include everything from outright bans to paper bag fees to “bill credits” for people who bring their own bags. Minneapolis’ proposal would ban plastic bags outright (with exceptions for produce, takeout, newspapers, or small hardware items like screws), and introduce a 10-cent fee on paper bags. The idea is to incentivize shopkeepers and consumers to use and re-use more durable bags (e.g. canvas, thicker plastic, etc.), solving the bag problem at its source, the check-out counter.

“Psychologically a fee is more effective than a bonus,” Abruzzese explained. “It’s a quirk of human nature that’s fees are more incentivizing. And because businesses keep the fee, and it’s not just another tax, we’re hoping it helps businesses see an advantage to shifting perspective on this.”

Abruzzese lived in Washington, D.C., when it banned plastic bags in 2009, and as she describes it, once people get used to the new system, it becomes second nature. She suggests businesses or groups sponsor bag giveaways (branded reusable bags instead of water bottles), and that people keep reusable bags in convenient places like their cars or kitchens.

“You have to wash the bags every now and again, especially if anything leaks,” Abruzzese told me. “It’s a little bit of a transition, but once you get used to the habit of it, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to do.”

That said, similar bans by hundreds of cities, and a handful of countries (e.g. China) have prompted pushback from free-market and industry groups. For example, with millions of dollars of help from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, California’s proposed state-wide ban is going to be on the 2016 ballot, and next-door Wisconsin is proposing a state-wide ban on bans of plastic bags. (Yes, you read that correctly: a plastic bag ban.)

Tumblebags blowing in the wind

For almost a year now, there’s been a plastic bag in the tree across the street from my apartment. It’s almost invisible, hanging there like sleep in the corner of your eye. But every once in a while I notice it again, just one bag in one tree on one city street, and it makes me wonder: For every “tumblebag” that gets noticed, how many hundreds more are out there in sewers or rivers or strewn across empty lots?

There’s a public hearing March 21 (1:30 p.m., Room 317, Minneapolis City Hall) where members of the public are invited to weigh in on the plastic bag proposal.

Meanwhile, I don’t think the bag in my neighbor’s tree is ever coming down. No fire fighter will climb 100 feet to remove a cheap plastic bag, and there’ll be no benevolent litter-fighting squirrel. If a season’s worth of budding leaves, wind and rain haven’t dislodged it, I don’t know what will.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/17/2016 - 11:00 am.

    About time, it is.

    Thanks, Bill. I use my large Costco zippered bag for other grocery/produce runs, keeping a collection of these problematic plastic bags in that one, for use and multiple re-use.

    Very simple, very easy, very Manhattan, as a matter of tradition.

  2. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 03/17/2016 - 11:46 am.

    One kind of plastic?

    Did I miss it, or was there no reference to biodegradable plastic bags in the article? If not, why not?

    • Submitted by Maria Jette on 03/17/2016 - 12:19 pm.

      the biodegradable/compostable quandary

      I’ve been wondering lately about that issue. What happens when a biodegradable or compostable bag is missed in with standard plastic bags at the recycling operation? Does it disrupt that process? Ditto for the compostable plastic cups appearing at well-meaning churches etc.–how many diligent recyclers are dropping theirs into the mixed recycling bins by mistake, and what impact does that have? What about people who’ve been using compostable plastic cups, who may occasionally unthinkingly drop a “real” plastic cup into the compostables bin?

      It feels like a hall of mirrors. Whichever way you turn, there’s a potential mess.

      And of course, there’s the issue of what “biodegradable” even means. Apparently, merely the ability to break down into wee little bits can allow something to be called “biodegradable,” even though the bits are still plastic, and stay plastic until the end of time. And yes, we’re consuming those bits.

      That’s opposed to “compostable,” which is usually made out of corn somehow. That’s the stuff which seems the best– but which nags at me the most. How carefully do people pay attention to it? I think the only way that stuff could truly make a difference would be if all real plastic bags were banned, and ONLY compostable bags were legal.

      From the Wikipedia page on “biodegradable bag”:
      “The public looks at biodegradable as something magical,” even though the term is mostly meaningless, according to Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and science consultant to the Biodegradable Plastics Institute. “This is the most used and abused and misused word in our dictionary right now. Simply calling something biodegradable and not defining in what environment it is going to be biodegradable and in what time period it is going to degrade is very misleading and deceptive.” In the Great Pacific garbage patch, biodegradable plastics break up into small pieces that can more easily enter the food chain by being consumed.” [8]™

  3. Submitted by Steven Clift on 03/17/2016 - 12:11 pm.

    Some related links …

    If we want the model to spread beyond Minneapolis to state
    legislation, I say go with a 10 cent bag charge:

    http://www.telegraph​.co​.uk​/news​/earth​/environment​/12034574​/Plastic​-bag​-5p​-charge​-cuts​-usage​-by​-almost​-80​-per​-cent​-first​-data​-shows​.html
    http://www.printweek.com​/print​-week​/briefing​/1154181​/bag​-charge​-set​-to​-benefit​-uk​-industry
    http://www.retail-week.com​/sectors​/grocery​/analysis​-what​-impact​-has​-the​-5p​-plastic​-bag​-levy​-had​-in​-england​/7004610​.fullarticle

    https://en.wikipedia.org​/wiki​/Phase​-out​_of​_lightweight​_plastic​_bags

    And get the whole state to adopt it … or make it go into effect when
    X cities in the metro adopt the same policy or by X later date if they
    don’t.

    Let’s design this so we are not just an island of environmental
    responsibility. We need a greater impact.

    Steve

  4. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 03/17/2016 - 02:29 pm.

    Carbon Sequestration

    When you consider climate change, the last thing you want is more carbon dioxide in the air. Once crude oil or natural gas is pumped from the ground you don’t want to burn it and you don’t want to “biodegrade” it because it generates all the CO2 that is causing climate change.

    From this perspective, converting the crude oil into non-biodegradable polyethylene bags is a very good thing for the climate. Even filling landfills with it is a good thing since the earth is where all these hydrocarbons came from in the first place.

    A gallon of gasoline puts about as much carbon in the air as it takes to make 2,000 plastic grocery bags. That’s a lot of bags. It’s much better for the environment to put effort into not burning gasoline than banning plastic bags.

    Bags blowing around the yard are another thing entirely and of course we should all litter less.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 03/19/2016 - 01:22 pm.

      Bigger than plastic

      I framed this article about plastic bags, but really the policy is intended to be broader, trying to discourage both paper and plastic in favor of reusable bags.

      My admittedly superficial understanding is that plastic bags don’t come at the expense of petroleum, but are a byproduct. I might be wrong.

  5. Submitted by Presley Martin on 03/18/2016 - 09:09 am.

    Bags out there

    “I notice it again, just one bag in one tree on one city street, and it makes me wonder: For every “tumblebag” that gets noticed, how many hundreds more are out there in sewers or rivers or strewn across empty lots?”
    I’ve been out there noticing lots of “tumble bags” especially in the Mississippi. I often collect trash along the river, and often don’t bring a bag to collect it because I know I’ll find plenty of bags along the river. I’m definitely in favor of a ban, although I’ll have to find an alternative for scooping out the cat box. I think it’s important not to blame this mess on people littering, even if no one littered there would still be lots of bags in the environment. Their lightweight nature allows them to escape from garbage bins and garbage trucks all the time. I’ve seen lots of bags escape as a dumpster is emptied into a garbage truck on windy days.

  6. Submitted by Alan Straka on 03/18/2016 - 09:25 am.

    cost for paper bags

    I don’t understand the charge for paper bags. They are free now, why start charging for them? The cost of the bag for the merchant is built into the cost of the goods sold. It seems like this is just a sop to the merchants to get them to go along.
    Reusable bags are a great idea until you have to figure how many you need before going to the store. So much for impulse purchases. Do I need to carry a bag with me everywhere I go just in case? I am sure the merchant is just going to love it when, as the checkout line is getting longer, I ask him to hold on while I run out to the car to get another bag.
    I guess I can always move to Wisconsin.

  7. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 03/24/2016 - 06:46 am.

    Paper Bags

    I hate the plastic bags, I don’t see why anyone uses them. You can’t fit much in them and they break, I think a ban on them would be good.
    I use paper bags at the grocery. I reuse them and you can get many trips out of a paper bag. I keep one or two in the car in case I need to make an impromptu run to the store. I guess the reusable bags that the stores sell are ok, but to me that seems like an unnecessary purchase.

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