Miscellaneous Ramblings

Apple Store Eliminating Plastic Bags for Customers

Charles Moore - 2009.03.09 - Tip Jar

AppleInsider's Prince McLean reported Saturday that Apple's retail stores are implementing a new "no plastic bags" policy in order to cut back on unnecessary packaging.

According to the report, customers making more than a comfortable handful of purchases in the store will be offered assistance to their car or the option of leaving their items at the store while they continue shopping, if the Apple Store located in a mall.

This new policy is another element of Apple's efforts to enhance its green profile, other recent measures having been reducing the size of its product packaging and emphasizing electronic distribution of music and software.

More Hype than Substance

The intent behind this initiative is commendable, but in the instance of banning plastic bags from its stores, Apple is jumping on a bandwagon that amounts to more hype than substance. Apple, of course, is based in the San Francisco area, whose municipal governments banned plastic shopping bags in grocery stores in November 2007.

Abroad, Paris and London have enacted similar bans. In Ireland and in Germany, shoppers pay a recycling fee for plastic bags. The Los Angeles City Council voted last summer to ban plastic shopping bags from stores, beginning July 1, 2010. Shoppers will be obliged to either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag.

a reusable grocery bagIn Canada, where I live, major grocery chain Loblaws has also launched a "no free plastic bags" policy and will charge 5¢ per plastic shopping bag when they are requested by customers (since the bags cost about 1¢ and the Loblaw charge is 5¢; that's a tidy 400% profit) to apply nationwide by April 22, 2009 - Earth Day. Our closest Loblaw's SuperStore has already phased in the policy, and my wife and I have begun lugging a wad of reusable cloth grocery bags on shopping expeditions.

Not a Worthwhile Strategy

However, I'm not convinced that eliminating plastic bags from retail is really a worthwhile strategy. As with another purportedly "green" solution - biofuels - which can actually result in more carbon release and environmental damage than their equivalent in petroleum fuels would, and production of which is driving food costs into the stratosphere, literally starving people to death in poorer countries, moves to ban or tax complementary disposable shopping bags are largely feel-good gestures that may do more harm than good.

Disposable plastic retail bags are arguably one of the greatest innovations of the last 50 years.

When I was a kid, grocery stores provided paper bags, which were awkward to carry, tore easily, had no wet strength at all, and were not terribly useful after you unpacked them at home.

Plastic Bags Are Greener

According to one University of Winnipeg study, paper bags are twice as energy intensive as plastic bags. The American Plastics Council says that bag taxes or bans could cost tens of thousands of jobs and result in an increase in energy consumption, pollution, landfill space, and grocery prices as store owners increase reliance on more expensive paper bags (endorsed as an alternative by the new Los Angeles bylaw) or other alternatives.

Even the Sierra Club concedes that the energy and other environmental impacts embodied in a plastic grocery bag is somewhat less than in a paper grocery bag. The Film and Bag Federation claims that compared to paper bags, plastic grocery bags consume 40% less energy, generate 80% less solid waste, produce 70% fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94% fewer waterborne wastes.

...recycled plastic bags are in high demand....

National Geographic reported that somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and quotes the American Plastics Council's Laurie Kusek, noting that recycled plastic bags are in high demand from companies that turn them into building materials, chopping them up, mixing them with wood pulp, and shaping them into "composite" lumber.

"We also feel it is important to understand that plastic grocery bags are some of the most reused items around the house," Ms. Kusek said. "Many, many bags are reused as book and lunch bags as kids head off to school, as trash can liners, and to pickup Fido's droppings off the lawn."

Plastic Makes More Sense than Paper

Disposable plastic bags are stronger, have convenient carry handles, are unaffected by water and other fluids, store efficiently, can be immensely useful in a variety of reuses, and cost retailers about a penny apiece. It is estimated that seven out of ten disposable plastic shopping bags are currently reused by consumers for purposes such as lining household wastebaskets and participating in municipal organics programs. Banning or taxing them, or or charging many times their real cost as a deterrent, is arguably counterproductive and wrongheaded.

After Ireland introduced an environmental "levy" (i.e.: tax) on plastic bags in 2001, Irish polyethylene consumption actually increased from a pre-levy 29,846 tonnes to 31,649 tonnes in 2006. Reasons cited: consumers started buying purpose-manufactured, single-use plastic bags to perform myriad utilitarian roles, such as lining wastebaskets formerly filled by recycled grocery bags, as well as becoming used to the tax and asking for plastic bags again.

Nevertheless, more businesses like Apple and Loblaws and governments across the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, and Australia are hopping onto the anti-plastic bag bandwagon in what amounts to a visible (but simplistic) address of a complex issue.

As Lord Dick Taverne of the UK independent charitable trust Sense About Science recently observed, "This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn't achieve anything."

Plastic Bag Myths

What about popular factoids, like the one that plastic bags can persist in the environment for 500 to 1,000 years and a misquoted, endlessly regurgitated 1980s report that bag litter kills 100,000 birds, whales, seals, and turtles annually?

Partial truths, exaggerations, or outright bunkum.

The original report on marine life primarily referenced abandoned fishing gear, finding that between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine animals, and a million birds, were killed by discarded nets and such.

Some plastics are indeed environmentally persistent, but plastic bags can be made biodegradable. Iowa State University has developed a bag made with 90% cornstarch and 10% PVC that simply melts away after six months exposure to the elements (a downside of biodegradables is that they're not recyclable, and can cause problems in the recycling stream if mixed in with petroleum-based bags).

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association claims plastic bags leave a very small carbon footprint and represent less than 1% of landfill contents and less than 0.5% of litter. Of course, we could do a better job of recycling plastic bags, but the good news is that they're eminently recyclable.

I suppose the trendy anti-plastic bag push is unstoppable, but it doesn't make a lot of objective sense.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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