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The Green Room: Paper, Plastic Or Neither? Washtenaw County Ponders A Reusable Bag Ordinance

Noelle Bowman

While the repeated use of cloth bags makes them a better choice for the environment, the free throwaway bags at checkout are hard to resist.  Is this really a problem?  In this installment of 89.1 WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores why the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners is looking into a reusable bag ordinance.

Clerk:  Paper or plastic?

Barbara Lucas:  Not only are shoppers contemplating this question, so are governments around the world.  Because plastic bag use has exploded: An estimated 100 billion plastic bags are thrown away in the U.S. every year. But studies show paper bags have drawbacks too.  

Denise Robbins:  The negatives of paper are that they take more energy, take more water to produce, but you are so much more likely to recycle them than you are your plastic bags, because you don't need to go to some special plastic bag recycling center or bin.

BL:  Denise Robbins is with Media Matters, of Washington, DC.  She says paper not only is easily recyclable, it’s compostable too, whereas plastic…

Robbins:  …doesn't ever fully breakdown. It degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. It finds its way into fish’s stomachs and seabird stomachs.  You just don't see that sort of thing happening with paper waste.

BL:  More to the point in land-locked Washtenaw County, plastic film is creating huge headaches for our two recycling facilities, where it winds around the gears and shuts down operations for hours each day. 

BL:  I’m with Phil Bolyard, general manager of the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority.

Phil Bolyard:  Those plastic bags just get in there and tie in knots!

BL:  His workers try to snatch out the bags by hand before they can gum up the gears, but there’s just too many.  So they must climb up into the enormous machines and cut them out.

Bolyard:  And when you try to stand on those rubber discs, the shafts want to turn and the guys are sliding down as they are trying to cut. It’s just a nightmare!

BL:  He says it can be dangerous. 

Bolyard:  You got an X-Acto knife with a razor blade on it and you're trying to stand in there and go from disk to disk to try to cut these things out—it can be dangerous. The one guy, he was cut and they put eight stitches in his leg because he slipped.

BL:  He says to top it all off, he can’t sell the plastic to recyclers—it’s too dirty—so has to pay to landfill it.  And if any of it accidentally gets into the bales of materials sent to processors, he’s in trouble.

Bolyard:  If they reject a load because it’s got a lot of plastic bags and stuff in it, they charge you back $3,000.

BL:  Between low commodity prices and the increase in plastic bags, he says municipal recycling operations are struggling.

Bolyard:  I set down and looked at the numbers the other day and we're going to probably make $150,000 less than we did last year.

BL:  Noelle Bowman is a Solid Waste Program Specialist with Washtenaw County.  For the Board of Commissioners, she’s analyzed what plastic bags are costing the county’s two recycling facilities.

Noelle Bowman:  A very conservative estimate is around $220,000 a year.  That includes labor, damage to equipment, also the lack of end markets—it's causing, forcing, these recycling facilities to pay to landfill these materials.

Bolyard:  Any of the recycling companies you talk to, I don't care where it is, that's the number one complaint: Plastic bags. 

BL:  Muskegon County is poised to become the first community in Michigan with a bag ordinance.  Last year the California passed a statewide measure, Hawaii followed soon after.  Robbins says the bag manufacturers managed to delay California’s—it will be decided by referendum next year.

Robbins: The California ban has probably really scared them and they are afraid of it spreading to other states.  And it definitely can. Especially if people see that people can live with a plastic bag ban.

BL:  Among those opposing bans and fees is Novolex, a leading bag manufacturer.  Director of Sustainability Phil Rozenski points to Austin, where thin plastic bags were banned, but not thick ones.  This led to a proliferation of thick bags clogging up the system.  

Phil Rozenski:  We really need to focus on educating people, regardless of the product, the right way to dispose of it, if we're going to make a difference.  Otherwise we'll continue to see these negative impacts.

BL:  Bolyard says they’ve tried hard to educate folks not to put plastic bags in single-stream recycle bins.

Bolyard:  The articles that we did put in the paper we explained to them that we do NOT recycle plastic bags—they are trash, we have to pay to get rid of them. But they’re still coming!

BL:  What about recycling the bags by taking them to the collection bins at grocery stores? Bowman says…

Bowman:  Stores often collect the bags back, but only up to 9% is recycled. So even with the stores already doing so, we’re seeing extensive contamination with these bags elsewhere.  So it's really not working.

BL:  At Novalex, Rozenski says there is a reason the recycling rates are low.

Rozenski:  Because people are reusing the bags.  People would recycle more if they didn't reuse them.

BL:  Bowman disagrees.  She says the proof is in the proliferation of bags in our environment.

Bowman:  There may very well be a lot of reuse going on but that's not solving the problem.

BL:  Can old bags be made into new bags?  Yes, but it’s not a one to one ratio.  According Novalex, which offers a line of bags with recycled content…

Rozenski:  About 33% of our feedstock is from retail bags that were recycled. The rest is going to be a virgin or first use material.

BL:  Turns out a minority of bags are turned into new bags.  Most are being shipped overseas.  Of those used domestically, over half are used for plastic lumber.  Trex is the biggest user.

Hicks: Our decking boards are 95% recycled content. 50% of that is the plastic bags and plastic film. The other 50% is scrap waste wood that we get from cabinet and flooring manufacturers.

BL:  That’s Stephanie Hicks, Trex spokesperson.  She says although some hope compostable plastic bags are the answer, if they accidentally get collected for recycling, it’s a big problem for Trex.

Stephanie Hicks:  Because it would obviously end up causing our boards to degrade. So we don't want that.

BL:  I asked if Trex can use the plastic that’s gumming up the works at our recycling facilities.

Hicks:  Unfortunately we cannot use it because once it has been comingled with everything else in the recycling truck, and then gotten into the sort line, and strapped to machinery, it is filthy.

BL:  Will bans or fees on plastic retail bags eliminate the plastic Trex needs?  Hicks says there’s lots of other plastics they can use, and that currently can go in the recycling collection bins at the stores.

Hicks:  Your overwrap that comes on paper towels and toilet tissue and napkins and diaper packaging, dry cleaning bags, newspaper sleeves, cereal box liners, produce bags, bubble wrap, air pillows, salt bags, pellet bags, furniture wrap, electronic wrap.  Those are all items that can be included at the grocery store.

BL:  If Trex can live without the bags, what about the public?  Here’s Denise Robbins.

Denise Robbins: There's a lot of types of plastic that's harder to get away from using, but the easiest thing to do is just take your reusable bags to the store.

BL:  She points to the success of Ireland, where in 2002 plastic bag use was reduced by 90% when a hefty fee was placed on them at checkout.  She says it created a…

Robbins:  …complete difference in society that, took them a couple years maybe but, they're pretty much there.  It’s amazing!

BL:  Bowman notes that where reusable bag measures are adopted, plastic bags continue to be sold on store shelves.  It’s the freebies at checkout that are the concern.

Noelle Bowman:  …single use consumerism promoting an unsustainable lifestyle.  And which, I think, as a community, we value getting away from that. 


Myths and Facts according to the Plastics Industry.

Myths and Facts according to Media Matters

Locations and links to bag legislation implemented globally

American Chemistry Council’s 2013 National Post-consumer Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Report

Guidelines for which plastic bags and wraps can be recycled

Find a plastic bag drop-off location near you


Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.