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Bag by Bag 

The fine art and terrifying task of carrying groceries from market to home

A steady stream of groceries moves past the checkstands at the North Coast Co-op's Arcata market one recent sunny afternoon, into a wide variety of containers: a colorful woven reed basket, an empty carton from the store's binful of used cartons, a clever bamboo-slatted box, some old cloth bags, a heavy duty "museum style" plastic bag. A few paper bags are mixed into the flow, but only a few, and there's no plastic -- the Co-op has never offered it.

At the checkstand, Deborah Watson of Arcata unfurls a pair of reusable bags, that she brings with her rather than buy -- yes, buy -- bags from the Co-op. As Watson packs her groceries into one cotton bag and one heavy duty plastic bag, she says, "I'd started to switch to reusables, but I wasn't consistent until the Co-op switched. ... Sometimes I'd forget to get the bags out of the car." In 2010, the Co-op decided to help the environment by encouraging reusable bags and reducing its use of paper bags. It has exceeded its goal of reducing bag use by 80 percent, and nobody seems upset.

With its changing approach to bags, the Co-op is among stores in Humboldt and beyond that have taken a fresh look at how people carry home their groceries. At least two other grocers here have eliminated plastic entirely. As the multi-jurisdiction Humboldt Waste Management Authority goes about developing a model bag ordinance for cities and the county, the environmental question becomes more about throwaway versus reuse than about paper versus plastic.

Those who want an end to free distribution of single-use bags worry about the resources squandered by throwaway products, the greenhouse gases created in their manufacture, the litter they produce, and the heavy toll on marine life exacted by plastics and the toxins they can release. One-use plastic bags, made of polyethylene, are recycled at very low rates (in the 5-10 percent range) and they're known to clog recycling equipment and fly off garbage trucks. "They are as aerodynamic as the top sail of a clipper ship," says Brent Whitener, programs director for the waste management authority. And, once on a roadside, they are apt to enter and clog sewers or otherwise reach bodies of water.

Whitener calls them "the red-headed stepchild of recycling -- the hardest to recycle and with the lowest rate of recycling." They don't usually get turned back into plastic bags, either; their likelier fate is to end up in things like Trex plastic decking. And, Whitener says, Californians have been going through 19 billion of them each year.

Whitener is the man developing a model ordinance that would reduce bag usage in Humboldt while, he hopes, avoiding drawing the county or local cities into lawsuits from the plastic bags industry. But try to mess with people's rights to throwaway plastic bags and, sooner or later, you're going to come up against Stephen L. Joseph, the attorney for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition.

Defending an Endangered Species

On the phone, Joseph speaks with such passion for the plastic bag that it's hard to figure out if he's sincere or just really good at his work -- it could be both.

Either way, Joseph is a blast to talk to or, to be precise, to listen to. Asked "why someone would be for plastic bags," his response is an astonished "why would anyone NOT be for plastic bags? They are the best bag for the environment because they use such a small amount of resources."

He's on a roll now, speaking quickly in the accent of his native England, despite 34 years of residence in the United States. "They use a waste product called ethane," he says, and the carbon which would be released by burning ethane is nicely locked up by its transformation into non-biodegradable plastic bags, which can live out their long lives in landfills. ("Waste product?" Ethane is described in a recent Financial Times article as a "crucial shale gas byproduct," though it may be crucial only in the production of polyethylene, the product from which single-use plastic bags are blown.)

Joseph is deft at latching onto the mass of misinformation about plastic versus paper that the media has not exactly stamped out. And he may be the most significant reason that Humboldt needs to proceed at a measured pace. On behalf of his coalition, he has sued nine California jurisdictions that have put bans in place. It's no wonder Humboldt wishes to move carefully.

In response to lawsuits, many newer ordinances that limit plastic also charge a fee for single-use paper. This second generation of ordinances is surviving challenges that had forced modification of some earlier "plastic ban only" ordinances, including one passed in Oakland in 2007.

Look at the environmental impact reports for bag laws, and you will find the many, many questions that Joseph raises. In the introduction to Santa Monica's Environmental Impact Report on banning single-use bags, the authors mention that the city received two letters in response to its 30 day "Notice of Preparation." One was from Mark Gold, President of Heal the Bay, and was generally supportive. The other was from Stephen L. Joseph on behalf of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, and listed, according to the final EIR, 27 subjects that he felt needed to be addressed, among them "cockroach infestation" and "hygiene of reusable bags." In a Time Magazine profile in 2008, the magazine headlined Joseph, "The Patron Saint of Plastic Bags."

Joseph says he's funded by a coalition of plastic "and reusable" bag manufacturers, but he declines to give details. Asked what he is paid, he instantly asks what the reporter is paid, and complains that getting industry funding "of course, means in the eyes of the ideological left that every word that we utter is a complete lie." About to ask him his budget, I begin, "I don't know if you're at liberty to say."  He cuts me off: "No, I'm not.  If you're going to talk about the money we get then talk about the money they get."

When the Los Angeles area city of Manhattan Beach (population 33,000) issued a negative declaration on the environmental impact of its plastic bag ban, trying to save itself the cost of developing a full environmental impact report, Joseph sued on behalf of the coalition, and he and the city fought the issue all the way up to the California Supreme Court. Overruling a Court of Appeals decision, the state Supreme Court held that the city could use "common sense" in deciding that potentially using more paper bags would not have a significant impact on its environment. The full Environmental Impact review might well be required of a much larger jurisdiction, the court indicated, but it concluded that for a city the size of Manhattan Beach, a negative declaration was sufficient. The Manhattan Beach initial study was filed in June of 2008; the state Supreme Court ruled for the city in July of 2011. Three years of delay. Lots of attorney's fees.

Joseph gives his clients their money's worth. To the suggestion that single-use bags might be wasteful, he instantly replies, "if we ban everything that's wasteful, we'd only have about 50 percent of our economy left." In fact, plastic bags represent only about 0.3 percent of the waste stream, according to many studies, with plastic grocery bags representing only 0.13 percent. "Why," Joseph wonders, "single them out?"

Well, why not?  You've got to start somewhere, after all.

But Joseph disagrees:  "If we're going to have a goal as a society of getting rid of everything that's disposable, let's do it seriously.  Let's not go for symbolism.  Let's get rid of paper towels, all the paper that we waste. ... I think that's a very bad idea.  If we start having city councils say we're going to ban everything that's wasteful, that's a heck of a slippery slope."

Joseph is an artist at highlighting the errors that seem to have become settled in many people's minds, and is expert at diverting conversation from the real problems to the maybe-not-so-real evidence photos. The larger truths about plastic's impact may become entangled in a web of evidence littered with a few unsupportable assertions.

For starters, the oft-cited great Pacific garbage patch, whose label outrages Joseph, is not nearly as photogenic as you may think -- there are definitely regions of the ocean where plastic accumulates, but not at concentrations that look like garbage dumps at sea. "There is not an ‘island' nor a ‘patch' of debris in any location that can be photographed or viewed from above," says Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, which studies plastic at sea. "That's why it's so hard to describe and visualize to most people."

But that doesn't prevent some people, presumably well-meaning, from spreading deceptive photographs.  A web search for images of the "great Pacific garbage patch" gives, as its second result, a dramatic photograph of a kayaker paddling through what looks like a solid sea of garbage. The image is from a web site registered to Tom Corcoran. Corcoran, an IT consultant in Ireland, said in an email to the Journal that he created the site as a concerned citizen and plucked the image from the Internet. Corcoran said he hadn't been aware of the photo's potential inaccuracy, and now he'll do more research.

Much of the oceans' photographed "plastic problem" is fishing gear, and still more is solid plastic, including bottles and bottle caps. Plastic bags make up a negligible part of what visible plastic does get found, but their fragments do concentrate persistent organic pollutants. Polyethylene absorbs toxic chemicals from the atmosphere and from sea water. Because it degrades to small particles and floats, it is then eaten by marine life and then, presumably, by us. "We need to inform the people about the disaster that the plastic bag represents in nature," says Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Not just the plastic bags, the plastic used by the society in general."

Even if some of the "common knowledge" about what's wrong with plastic is not very well supported, many serious life-cycle studies by different governments still show that plastic single-use bags are a harmful choice for the environment. The catch is, those studies also show that paper bags, used once, are harmful to the environment as well; in some ways, more so than plastic. That's why a second-generation of plastic bag ordinances stress reduction in use of both single use plastic and single use paper, in favor of reusables.

Paper or Plastic?  Neither, Thanks

After the plastics industry began attacking bag laws, a group of a dozen or so cities formed Green Cities California, which commissioned a master environmental assessment that other jurisdictions could use to save money when preparing studies to support bans or fees of their own.

Its assessment found that paper bags create more greenhouse gas emissions, more ozone, more atmospheric acidification and more water consumption than single-use plastic bags. The assessment also said that because plastic bags are so light compared to paper bags -- about one-tenth the weight -- they require less energy to transport and take up less space in landfills.  It concluded, though, that plastic is worse than paper in several other categories including litter, compostability, recycling, and its effect on marine wildlife.

Carol Misseldine, director of Green Cities, says: "We have the science on our side, we have the MEA (master environment assessment) on our side conducted by an organization that doesn't have a horse in this race. They just looked at the facts and they provided us with the report and what the report clearly said is that the American Chemistry Council has a good point -- that paper is worse than plastic in some key ways.  I think what they were hoping is that we should just go back to single-use plastic, but that's irrational because plastic is worse than paper in some ways. The only sane response if you're concerned with life on the planet is to go to durable."

Joseph tries to chip away at reusable bags, too. "They're absolutely terrible because of the health concerns and the environmental impacts. If you have a cotton bag, according to the UK analysis we have, you have to use it 173 times before it offsets its environmental impact compared to a plastic bag."

Sure enough, the UK's Environment Agency, did report in 2011 that a cotton bag would need to be reused 173 times to have less global warming impact than a typical single-use plastic bag, used once for groceries and then re-used as a trash can liner about half the time. But for non-woven polypropylene reusable bags, the threshold is much lower: only 14 re-uses would be needed to make it preferable to single use plastic. That's twice a week for less than two months.

The most dramatic anti-reusable argument Joseph could come up with in a phone call with the Journal was to retell the cautionary tale of one unwashed bag. Members of a girls' soccer team at a tournament in Washington state in 2010 came down with norovirus, a nasty stomach bug that can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Public health detectives tracked the outbreak to a bag holding sandwiches. Researchers theorized that the illness was spread from one ailing team member to the others by either the reusable bag, which had been left in a bathroom, or its packaged contents.

Clearly, bags -- reusable or not -- should not be left lying around bathrooms and, if reused, should be washed or disinfected regularly. (But don't waste too much water!) And equally clearly, reusable bags must really be reused - a lot -- to reduce their environmental impact.

Humboldt -- Moving Slowly So Far

Humboldt County governments that might want to ban single-use bags would love to act without facing court challenges. In late 2010, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and the Arcata City Council asked Humboldt Waste Management Authority to look into developing a model ordinance that each member could adapt. The authority is a joint powers agency created by the county and the cities of Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Ferndale and Rio Dell. In addition to running a transfer station, which handles garbage, recycling and hazardous waste collection, it works to reduce the amount of waste generated in the county.

HWMA's offices are beside the transfer station on West Hawthorne Street in Eureka, tucked away behind the Harbor Lanes bowling alley on Broadway. While the building is shiny, clean and modern, it still suffers from the smell of garbage; when you enter Brent Whitener's office, a light smell of mint masks the odor pretty effectively. Whitener, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant, said the toughest part of preparing a new model law was building up the supporting documents to minimize the chance of being sued.

Despite the potential pitfalls, the HWMA has moved forward with a model second-generation ordinance for local jurisdictions, and is developing documents that could be used by local governments to support new bag laws. The draft ordinance, and the documentation supporting it, should be going to HWMA member agencies for review very soon -- it is currently under internal review at HWMA.  

Progress has been "excruciatingly slow," said Colleen Clifford of Humboldt Surfrider, which along with Humboldt Baykeeper has been urging jurisdictions to act for years. Both groups continue to push for bans and have nearly 500 signatures on an online Ban the Bag petition.

More than 50 California jurisdictions already have passed bans on single-use plastic bags, most of them within the past two years. San Francisco took action in 2007. In May of this year, Los Angeles became the largest American city to ban single-use plastic bags at supermarket checkout counters; the ban will follow four months of review and a six- to 12-month phase in. Efforts to impose a statewide band have failed so far, although one is pending in Assembly Bill 298.

The model ordinance Whitener is working on, like most such laws, would apply initially to supermarkets and pharmacies with 10,000 square feet or $2 million of sales. Individual jurisdictions could decide whether or when to include convenience stores and take-out restaurants.

It would require stores to eliminate plastic single-use bags and charge at least a nickel for "reusable paper" bags, except for people receiving aid from the WIC (Women Infants Children) program or the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The bag charge would be itemized on the register tape and kept by the store. It would not take the form of a tax on the bags -- too much chance of litigation. The government would have no say in how the retained funds are used -- too much chance of litigation. It might be safest to exclude restaurants -- litigation. There would be a two-year transition period before penalties would be assessed against violators.

Along with the ordinance, Whitener has done up 25 pages of documentation to support the argument that this bag law does not violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

If they decide to act against plastic bags, member jurisdictions will need to decide whether they will seek "negative declarations," saying a ban wouldn't hurt the environment, or put in the extra effort and money to develop their own full environmental impact reports. Whitener believes that for many member jurisdictions his documentation will support such negative declarations. The full county, on the other hand, may need to proceed to a full environmental impact report, a costly and time-consuming step.

You Don't Need to Wait

Until any local laws are passed, every grocery store in Humboldt is on its own. Some, like Winco, have oodles of plastic and paper at each register. Others, including the Co-op, Eureka Natural Foods and Wildberries, don't offer plastic and may either charge for paper bags or offer customers a discount for bringing their own bags or containers.

In Humboldt, the move to reusable bags seems to be gaining speed. The Ray's market in McKinleyville eliminated plastic bags in March, according to store manager Robert Parker. The store has begun giving discounts for people bringing in bags to re-use, and the number of shoppers taking Rays up on that has increased dramatically, Parker said: up from perhaps 40 to 100 a day, out of 1,000 to 1,200 daily customers.

Wildberries in Arcata stopped offering plastic bags at the register around the beginning of this year, and it's seeing more and more usage of cloth and reusable plastic bags, said owner Phil Ricord.

According to Carlos Avelar, a Murphy's manager, all Murphy's have now eliminated use of plastic bags at checkouts, and all stores offer a discount to customers bringing in reusable bags.

Safeway managers deferred questions to a "we really care" 800 customer service number, which apparently didn't really care enough to return the call.  Winco's media director did not return calls either.

The membership-owned North Coast Co-op has never used plastic bags, and one of its goals is "serving the environment." In a planning session in 2009, General Manager David Lippman proposed reducing the stores' usage of single-use paper bags to help reach that goal. A membership survey in the group's newsletter showed overwhelming support, and the Co-op decided to contribute bag fees to its Cooperative Community Fund, which donate to local nonprofits.

After extensive publicity in 2010, the two Co-op stores in Arcata and Eureka spent January 2011 giving customers 6,000 reusable bags. And then they started charging for single-use paper bags. Paper bag usage dropped 69 percent almost immediately, and has stayed down, according to Co-op Outreach Director Melanie Bettenhausen. The Co-op's goal was an 80 percent reduction, and bag usage has actually fallen 84 percent, down from 30,500 paper bags each month to just 4,900 per month now. At the same time, the store has contributed nearly $3,000 in bag fees to the community fund over the past six months.

Since many of the shoppers at the Co-op's Eureka store are just passing through the area and are not members, cashiers there have the option of skipping the charge -- "just this once" -- if someone make it an issue. Bettenhausen says, "Nobody wants to feel that anyone is taking advantage."

Other co-ops have modeled their changes after the North Coast Co-op's slow and gentle strategy. And David Lippman, the store's general manager, adds that "it seems pretty clear that plastic bags are not a necessity for retail stores, as we have done OK without them for 39 years."

The Co-op and others have shown that, with a little prompting, Humboldters are ready to reuse their bags. We can buy reusables, but it can be as simple as reusing the paper or plastic bags we already have. Remembering to re-use every new bag we get at least once gives us a 50 percent reduction in impact, right away, without the need for petitions, action by supermarkets, or action by government. Once we've cut that 0.3 percent of the waste stream in half or more, we can tackle more challenging goals.

Mitch Trachtenberg lives in Trinidad, where he teaches old computers new tricks and wishes he and his car were less of an environmental disaster.

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