As Minneapolis plastic bag ban nears, state agency says environmental benefits of paper over plastic is a myth

A Minneapolis ban on plastic bags is set to take effect on June 1.  According to a city news release, the purpose of the ban is “to reduce the litter, waste, environmental impacts and expense of managing carryout bags.”

No doubt city council members feel pretty good about themselves.  But feeling good and doing good are, of course, two different things.  It turns out the plastic bag ban likely won’t deliver the environmental benefits advocates claim.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently posted an article busting seven green myths,  the seventh myth being the belief that paper bags are environmentally superior to plastic bags.

The whole purpose of the list is to get people to make better environmental decisions.  For instance, it’s a myth that washing dishes by hand saves water and energy.  Similarly, it’s a myth that washing your car by hand is better for the environment.  The MPCA message is clear, go ahead and use the dishwasher and the car wash.  Conveniences can also be environmentally friendly.

Here’s what they have to say on the plastic versus paper myth:

Conventional wisdom has led many to believe that paper is a more natural product than plastic, thus making it the better choice for the environment. In truth, things are a lot more complicated. Both paper and plastic have big environmental impacts during their life-cycles.

As compared to plastic, paper production actually generates more greenhouse gasses and uses more energy and water, report several studies like this one: Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States.

Unlike paper, most curbside collection programs don’t accept plastic bags, so the recycling rate for plastic is lower. Plastic bags are more likely to become litter, clog waterways, and pose a threat to marine animals.

Hazardous chemicals are used to produce both paper and plastic bags.

The best choice is to avoid disposable bags altogether. Opt instead for durable, reusable bags, preferably made from recycled materials.

The MPCA is basically telling people, if you’re going to use a disposable bag, go ahead and use plastic.

However, the authors of the study the MPCA cites take a much stronger stance against the myth and actually come out on the side of plastic.  They find paper bags “have significantly higher average impacts on the environment than either of the reusable bags or plastic retail bags.”  Depending on the recyclable content, the average environmental impact of paper bags was about 4 to 7.5 time greater than plastic bags.  Plastics can also beat reusable bags because most people don’t reuse them enough to offset the much larger environmental impact in creating and disposing of them.

And if you buy into the city’s arguments on reducing litter and waste, the study further explains, a “compilation of all of the statistically-based, scientific studies of litter in the U.S. and Canada over an 18 year period shows consistently that ‘plastic bags’ (which includes trash bags, grocery bags, retail bags and dry cleaning bags) make up a very small portion of litter, usually less than 1%.”

The study’s concluding recommendation: “consumers should be given a choice between reusable bags and Plastic Retail Bags and that any of these should be preferred over Paper bags.”

So it turns out the Minneapolis plastic bag ban will almost certainly do more environmental harm than good.  If the environmental impact of paper really is at least 4 times higher than plastic, then any shift to paper caused by the ordinance will harm the environment.  Even if you use reusable bags, you probably won’t use it enough.

But ultimately, the environmental harm from whatever choice of bag a customer or retailer makes is negligible.  People should be free to choose whatever bag they want free of government intrusion.

And Minnesotans will be free to choose if state legislators get their way.  A bill just passed in the Senate as part of the big omnibus environment and natural resources bill that would bar Minneapolis and any other local government from imposing a ban, fee, or tax on the use of bags by retailers to package purchases.  By busting the myth of the environmentally superior paper bag, the MPCA certainly raised the chances that the legislation will gain passage.  Minneapolis retailers, don’t throw those plastic bags away just yet.