"This kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists."
Those are the words of Oregon State University ocean scientist Angel White, expressing frustration at phony claims of those pushing bans on plastic grocery bags. In a pointed press release, White contradicted those who claim there are islands of trash in the ocean, the size of Texas, filled with plastic bags. She calls their claim "grossly exaggerated."
Unfortunately, scientists like White have been ignored by advocates of plastic bag bans, including members of the Tacoma City Council who recently voted to ban the bags.
Unscientific rhetoric was evident in Chrissy Cooley’s piece last week in The News Tribune, praising the ban. She claimed plastic bags "wreak havoc … on marine life" and lamented low rates of recycling. She failed, however, to cite any science to support her assertions or to address the environmental costs of alternatives.
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Science from leading environmental researchers demonstrates plastic bags are better for water quality than alternatives, such as cotton reusable bags.
The UK Environment Agency compared plastic bags to cotton reusable bags and found reusable bags have about 173 times as much "global warming potential." You would have to reuse that bag every week for more than three years just to break even compared to plastic bags.
Those same cotton bags generate 300 times as much water pollution. Cotton bags require fertilizer to grow, some of which runs off and aggregates at the mouths of rivers, creating "dead zones." Cooley promises "the next year will be filled with bag giveaways" around Tacoma, but that means more cotton for reusable bags and more water pollution.
Tacoma’s own analysis backs this up. The city’s staff report noted that paper bags cause "greater atmospheric acidification, water consumption, and ozone production than plastic bags." Ironically, they did not mention reusable bags are even worse.
His concern about dead zones is one reason Dr. Chris Reddy, senior scientist at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute, drove to Rhode Island to testify against a proposed plastic bag ban.
Reddy called claims of plastic bag opponents "borderline comical." He testified that instead of being the first state to ban plastic bags, Rhode Island should be the first state "that almost passed a plastic bag ban and said, ‘No, let’s stop,’ and do some really good research that is not hype."
Even Greenpeace acknowledges claims about plastic bags and marine life are nonsense. In 2008, The Times of London quoted a Greenpeace scientist noting, "It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite." This is not to say that plastic bags cause no impact, but bag bans do far more environmental damage than they prevent.
Finally, ban advocates claim plastic bags end up in landfills and that few are recycled. Actually, about 80 percent of plastic grocery bags are reused, either as trash liners or to pick up after pets.
The mantra of environmentalism is "reduce, reuse, recycle." Plastic bags are better than alternatives at reducing resource use — requiring less energy and causing less water pollution — and are reused at high rates. Supporters of a ban focus on low recycling rates because it is the only argument they can make, ignoring other environmental costs.
Emotional paeans to the end of plastic bags now substitute for science. There is growing frustration among scientists who fight every day to make our oceans cleaner, as they take time out from that effort to rebut feel-good but unscientific policies.
Sadly, the chance Tacoma City Council members will admit their error is small. The political praise they crave is tangible while the environmental damage of the ban is hidden. Such is the state of environmental policy today.
Todd Myers is environmental director of the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based think tank.