Across the country, from big cities like San Francisco to small towns like Westport, CT there is a movement to eliminate free plastic bags because of environmental issues. This movement is not sitting well with Big Oil, which is fighting all efforts which might hamper this $4 billion industry.
Seattle passed a 20-cent plastic bag tax, despite media efforts of the Plastic Bag Affiliates (PBA), which is a group of manufacturers of the bags, such as Exxon-Mobil and Dow Chemical. A concentrated PBA campaign since has garnered the necessary signatures to put the tax a future ballot, giving the oil companies one more shot at retaining their plastic bag business in Seattle.
In California the PBA ran ads that tried to scare people into thinking they would have to pay $400 per year because of the tax, and completely disregarded the fact that the tax was to encourage people to bring reusable bags which would then cost the taxpayer nothing.
In 2002, Ireland imposed a similar tax and saw an immediate 90% drop in plastic bag use. Ireland credits this reduction for saving 400,000 barrels of oil per year. China estimates it will save 34 million barrels of oil now that it has banned free plastic bags.
The PBA ads also say plastic bags are fully recyclable, which is true. However the ads neglect to mention that most American municipalities do not accept plastic bags for recycling because they can gum up the machinery. Less than 2% of plastic bags are recycled, according to the EPA. It also costs more to recycle plastic bags than to use virgin resin to make new bags, so it is not cost effective to recycle the bags, despite what the oil companies would have us believe.
Fear of losing billions in sales has made Big Oil come out swinging. To get the Seattle tax referendum, one estimate says they paid about $8 per signature in ad costs. To thwart California efforts for a ban or tax, the airways were filled with Gas, Food Now This! radio ads condemning a potential plastic bag tax. The ads said the tax would be especially devastating to low income families, seniors and anyone living on a fixed income. Again, PBA makes no mention that the tax incurred by these people would be zero if they brought in their own bags, which is the main purpose of the proposal.
In Annapolis, where a ban was being considered, Donna Dempsey, the plastic bag industry spokesperson, noted that paper bags take up seven times more space than plastic bags, so it cost more to truck them to the store and for stores to stock them. Once again, she did not mention reusable bags which would cost the stores nothing and take up no storage space.
American is behind the rest of much of the world when it comes to plastic bag reduction programs, in large part to the money, power and influence of the big oil companies which sponsor the Plastic Bag Affiliates campaigns to stop plastic bag taxes and bans.