by Loretta Van Coppenolle
You may recall that San Antonio launched its voluntary pilot program for reducing and recycling plastic bags in July 2011. The city hoped for a 25 percent reduction in plastic bags taken from stores and a 25 percent increase in plastic bags recycled.
Because the city’s recycling facility could not process plastic bags (they gum up the equipment), five retailers were enlisted to put plastic-bag recycling bins in front of their stores: HEB, Walmart, Walgreen’s, Target and JC Penney. This effort helped the city achieve the 25 percent increase in plastic bags being recycled. But the second goal – plastic bag reduction – did not happen. When the pilot program ended in December 2012, no reduction in plastic bag use was achieved.
Now San Antonio’s City Council is entertaining a ban on plastic bags, thanks to a proposal by District 7 Councilman Cris Medina. The proposed ban would be very much like a similar ban in Austin, which has been successful from the start. Austin’s ban is for single-use bags, which covers both paper and plastic.
There are many reasons to support the proposed ban. It’s easy to argue that plastic bags are an eyesore; just look around at local roadways and open fields. They also have significant health effects for animals and people. Both domestic and wild animals die from ingesting plastic bags. In oceans and waterways, plastic bags break down into small particles and displace food for fish, shellfish and other marine species, all the way up to whales. The particles can block these animals’ digestive tracts and cause them to die of starvation.
When we consume fish that ingest plastic particles, we get the ill effects. According to a plastic bag fact sheet produced by the Sierra Club, “The particles … bond with toxins, thus concentrating highly toxic and pervasive pesticides and pollutants (such as PCBs, DDE, DDT and trichloroethane) that move up the food chain and onto our dinner tables.”
Many may not realize that plastic bags use a lot of oil in their production – 12 million barrels per year in the U.S. alone, according to the Wall Street Journal. Plastic bags are also costly. The City of San Antonio spends $1.3 million per year cleaning them out of public places.
Paper Bags Not a Solution
You may be surprised to learn that paper bags are not preferable to plastic. They are energy- and water-intensive in their production. An estimated 14 million trees are cut down annually in the U.S. to make paper bags. The toxic chemicals used to manufacture paper bags pollute both water and air, as people who live near a woodprocessing facility well know.
Fortunately, most San Antonians have an abundance of reusable bags in their homes. The trouble is most don’t remember to take them to the supermarket or the mall. A ban could help us all remember, which has been the result in places where bans exist. Countries that have plastic bag bans in effect include Canada, much of the European Union, China and much of India. It is said that more than 25 percent of the world’s population lives where bags are banned or taxed. It’s a great time for San Antonio to join the upper quartile!
Loretta Van Coppenolle is a long-time member of the Sierra Club and until recently the District 8 representative of the San Antonio Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, which spearheaded the move toward a plastic bag ban or a charge for plastic bags in San Antonio.