The bag ban theory

The city of Reno considers what to do with plastic shopping bags. Is the apocalypse upon us?

It’s not hard to find littered and almost indestructible plastic bags in the Truckee Meadows.

It’s not hard to find littered and almost indestructible plastic bags in the Truckee Meadows.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Trex, an industrial supply company with a facility in Fernley, is one of the largest plastic bag recyclers in the United States. According to company literature,seven out of every 10 recycled grocery bags in the United States end up at Trex (about 1.5 billion per year). Check out for more information.

Consider the plastic shopping bag.

It’s beautiful and elegant in its utility. It comes in a spectrum of colors as wide as the rainbow. Light enough to float on Nevada’s brisk autumn breezes, it’s strong enough to carry a bunch of bolts, an electronic sprinkler controller, and a plastic bottle of in-lawn dandelion killer from the Home Depot. At Raley’s, three cans of spaghetti sauce and a bottle of fine cabernet won’t rip one apart—if you’re fearful of such a thing, double-bag it. And at Kohl’s, a single large-scale bag will hold an entire back-to-school wardrobe for a sixth-grade boy. And when Fido does his business on your neighbor’s lawn, the lowly plastic bag is there to use as an ad hoc glove.

With the exception of the paper clip, is there any single item with more uses?

But there’s a dark side to the simple, beautiful, ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. Need a list? Each year, up to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide; 100 billion in the United States. Those bags kill hundreds of thousands of marine and terrestrial animals every year. Plastic bags don’t break down into organic, soil-like material, they photodegrade—degrading into ever smaller toxic pieces contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food chain.Their strength is one of their primary weaknesses, since, buried in landfills, they may take up to a millennium—that’s a thousand years—to decompose. (Some estimates say it’s only 500 years.) And since only about 5 percent are recycled, that’s a lot of volume. The saline ocean waters actually slow their decomposition, and scientists, such as those at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, say there is an enormous area of “plastic soup” floating the ocean tides—twice the size of the continental United States—made primarily of plastic flotsam.

You don’t have to go to a 500 nautical mile strip between Hawaii and Japan to find bags. In the Truckee Meadows, look in the trees after a windstorm. Look on the hillsides along West McCarran Boulevard. Look on the bed of the Truckee River. Look on chain-link fences, at freeway overpasses, in storm drains.

And this is the soup the Reno City Council stepped in when Mayor Bob Cashell suggested the Council look into the possibility of a bag ban.

Bag end in the Truckee Shire
The mayor’s offhand comment started a set of dominoes in motion, which lead up to the second Green Summit, which will be at the Joe Crowley Student Union ballroom, University of Nevada, Reno, on Sept. 20. Among those dominoes was the formation of a group to study the issue of plastic shopping bags in Northern Nevada.

The group had members from the Chamber of Commerce, a retailers association, the Green Team (an inter-jurisdictional group that includes UNR, Washoe County, Reno, Sparks), two regular citizens, the Nevada Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, the American Chemistry Council, and Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful.

The stakeholders group was tasked with studying the impacts of plastic shopping bags. After the 2008 Green Summit, the group would then present to the City Council the recommendations on Sept. 23 with a vote on Oct. 23.

Marie Gilbert calls herself an “eco-friendly rabble rouser.” That’s her daughter, Maya, in the bag.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Nevada Higher Education Regent Jason Geddes, a former state legislator and current environmental services administrator for the city of Reno, has been a passionate environmental advocate in Northern Nevada for many years. He was charged with creating the working group.

“It originally started back at the Green Summit last year,” he said. “We had a section on waste and recycling, and the room had a bunch of suggestions of what we should be looking at, and one of those was a plastic bag ban. Then in February, the mayor asked in a Council meeting that staff look into that one further and come back with a report and a list of what other municipalities were doing. We gave that report in April, and in that meeting, the Council decided to move forward with a working group that would meet, look at the various options, come up with a few recommendations for the City and then bring those to the Green Summit, and have a public discussion and, based on the discussion, bring a couple recommendations back to Council for action.”

The working group was picked from people who’d shown interest in the subject. Plainly, when the subject of banning plastic bags comes up, plastic bag salespeople and manufacturers are going to perk up their ears. The presence of an out-of-state representative of the American Chemical Council on the working group raised some eyebrows both in the group and in the Reno community.

But “for and against” is a simplistic way to look at the issue. And while dozens of jurisdictions have adopted various policies to regulate bag use—everything from outright bans to increased recycling to “further study"—the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling, a group of plastic grocery bag manufacturers and recyclers based in Sacramento, has shown no compunction against tying up enacted laws in court. And perhaps coming up with an effective plan that’s not as onerous to manufacturers may get some kind of a program working sooner rather than later.

“Basically we wanted to get the viewpoint in the working group to see where things would go because the one thing that has hindered other municipalities’ actions are the lawsuits that come about,” said Geddes. “I thought it would be good to have someone there expressing their viewpoint so we know what we’re facing if we go forward.”

The working group had three meetings, with the last on Sept. 8.

“I think the only thing we truly eliminated was the absolute bag ban,” said Geddes. “Let me rephrase that, we haven’t truly eliminated it, but the outright ban did not receive the most support. We talked about a phase-in of a ban, maybe a five-year phase-in, but more likely, we talked about mandatory recycling with goals, and if those goals aren’t met, then the ban would be … not the big stick but the guillotine at the end of it.”

“But, the group didn’t get a lot of support that the ban would be something we could do—with all the opposition from industry—because we know it would go to a lawsuit. We don’t have anything other than what we’re taking to the Summit, and it won’t be until after the Summit that we come out with proposals to bring to Council. There may be enough support for an outright ban that that gets back in.”

In the bag
Since it’s generally recognized that something must be done about single-use plastic grocery bags, the discussion of change has two extremes: recycle or ban. Within those extremes, there are as many gradations as there are colors of bags.

Ryan Kenny is manager of state affairs and grass roots for the American Chemistry Council. The Sacramento industry representative also sat on the Reno stakeholders group. It’s not surprising that the plastic bag industry would prefer to see bags recycled rather than limited or banned. To that end, his group has already announced a program to enhance recycling in the Truckee Meadows.

Jason Geddes has been active in the green community for many years. He helped organize the Green Summit.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

“We’re very excited about providing the option for businesses to adopt one of 50 complimentary recycling bins that would allow customers to contribute—not just plastic grocery bags, but they can contribute newspaper bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, plastic bags for toiletries,” he said. “It’s more or less an expansion of the current infrastructure. And we have 50 complimentary bins to begin the process for the community.”

The bins Kenny described are about the size of the bins used in many stores for grocery bag recycling, but they’re translucent plastic. They have green and blue signage. Check out for a look or further information. There are also informational decals about the bins for doors and checkout stands.

Kenny and his associates, director of progressive bag affiliates Shari Jackson and director of industry and consumer outreach Jennifer Killenger, make the point that plastic bags, in and of themselves, are not the problem. It’s the fact that they get thrown out inappropriately and become litter—where they will outlive your great, great, great grandchildren.

“There are a lot of environmental benefits to plastic bags,” says Jackson. “For instance, they generate half the greenhouse gas emissions of a paper alternative; they use 70 percent less energy of those alternatives, generate 80 percent less waste than those alternatives and use 96 percent less water to manufacture than those alternates. They really are, when you compare the environmental impact of the paper alternative, much better for the environment.”

Her figures were similar to those released by the EPA, but she didn’t offer statistics on how plastic stacks up against reusable organic hemp or canvas bags.

Marie Gilbert is one of the Reno residents who participated in the bag ban working group. She calls herself “an eco-friendly rabble rouser.” She earned her seat on the working group because she spoke at the City Council meeting when the possibility of a new policy toward one-time use plastic shopping bags came up. When she’s not inspiring the masses, she does childcare, including yoga classes. She’s the mother of one young rabble, Maya.

By several estimations, including her own, she represents the far end of the spectrum of thought on plastic shopping bags. She was somewhat put off by the idea of the Sacramento grocery bag representative on a Reno committee.

“One of the American Chemistry Council’s lobbyists is actually on our committee,” says the 34-year-old, scanning Northgate Park as her daughter and a friend play in a concrete tube. “I haven’t figured out how, since he doesn’t own a Reno business, he’s not a Nevada business, he doesn’t represent any industry that exists in the state of Nevada. Period. Nothing. He’s just a sales guy for plastic bags. It’s not like he’s a grocery store, he’s not anything from here.”

She does acknowledge that knowing what the industry thinks may help in coming up with final policies for the city.

Her bottom line, which she will represent at the Green Summit, is a “reduce first” policy, decreasing the use of bags before focusing on recycling. It has several aspects, including requiring businesses that distribute more than 500 pounds of plastic or 1,000 pounds of paper single-use bags per month to maintain a uniform reusable bag swapping bin. She also recommends that single-use bags be banned at city-sponsored events.

The reusable bag-swapping bin is analogous to the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny tray at the 7-Eleven. It would essentially be a bin where people could drop off a clean, reusable shopping bag or pick some up for that day’s shopping.

At press time, Gilbert is uncertain exactly how the recommendations of the work group will be presented at the Summit, as they haven’t been distilled to the written form by Geddes. “The three or four ideas to be presented at the Summit will be something like—but it depends on how they’re written—are voluntary recycling, mandatory recycling, five-year transition to a ban and the idea I presented, the reduction-first angle,” she said.