Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sierra Club on Plastic Bags

This is the Sierra Club's testimony last year on a House bill on plastic bags....and the testimony highlights several of the points of controversy in the Newburyport discussion.  The bill is still in committee in the House.

I made a few highlights of my own.


Massachusetts Sierra Club
10 Milk Street, Suite 632
Boston MA 02103-4621

July 3, 2013

Chairwoman Anne M. Gobi
Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
State House, Room 473F, Boston, MA 02133

Chairman Marc R. Pacheco
Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
State House, Room 312B, Boston, MA 02133

Re: Sierra Club Testimony in support of H787, Related to Plastic Carryout Bags

Dear Chairwoman Gobi, Chairman Pacheco, and Honorable Members of the Committee,

On April 22, 2013, the Sierra Club testified before this committee in support of a ban on
plastic bags. The bill was reported favorably by the committee. The Sierra Club
enthusiastically supports this action. Below is a short description of the main differences
between H787 and H3438 (the bill that was recommended favorably by this committee).
Thank you Chairwoman Gobi, Chairman Pacheco, and Members of the Committee for
providing this opportunity to offer our comments on bills H787 and H3438, related to
reducing the use of plastic checkout bags in Massachusetts. We wish to express our support
in favor of this legislation.

The Sierra Club is the oldest and largest grassroots non-profit and non-partisan
environmental organization in the country, with over 1.4 million members and supporters
nationwide. Its chapter in Massachusetts has over 22,000 members throughout the state and
a history of protecting the environment that spans more than forty years. We work to create
healthy, vibrant communities through support of clean air and water; clean energy; recycling
and waste-elimination; and the preservation of the Commonwealth’s most treasured forests,
parks and open spaces.

There are differences between H.787, the filing by Rep. Denise Provost, and H3438. We
hope that the legislature will consider these proposals.

Bag Thickness: H3438 allows an exemption of plastic bags with a thickness of greater than
2.25 mils (thousandths of an inch). Further research shows that some single-use disposable
plastic bags could be improperly exempted, thus bypassing this bill’s intent. The Sierra Club
recommends consideration of Rep. Provost’s suggested standard of 3.0 mils.
Store Exemptions: The Sierra Club has been contacted by small stores that seem to fall
into a gray area of regulation. Rather than allowing the state to get unnecessarily bogged
down with a difficult regulatory situation, the Sierra Club recommends amending H3438 by
adopting Rep. Provost’s suggested definition of retail stores, thereby eliminating the
confusion surrounding store exemptions.

Possible Bioplastic Exemptions: The Sierra Club has been made aware that the bioplastic
specified in H3438 as exempt is not currently available in North America. We therefore
recommend amending H3438 by adopting Rep. Provost’s suggested no-bioplastic

Below is the testimony as submitted on April 22, 2013.
These bills would ban polyethylene and other types of plastic carryout bags in retail stores. It
would not limit other types of bags, such as those used in a market’s vegetable aisle.
Plastic bags cost society a lot more than the price retailers are currently paying to provide
them. There is no need for this environmental expense. Simple alternatives such as reusable
shopping bags are available and already used in many stores throughout Massachusetts.
Single-use plastic carryout bags should be banned because:
• Plastic bags are so light and capture airflow so well that even when properly
disposed of, they often blow away and become litter. Plastic bags are a unique form
of litter in that they can end up tangled in trees, causing visual blight and other
problems. The City of Los Angeles found that plastic bags account for 25% of litter in
their storm drains. Bags easily escape from garbage trucks, landfills, boats, and the
hands of everyday consumers – and are then carried into lakes and waterways, and
eventually into the ocean. Plastic bags make up the third most prevalent type of litter
from land-based sources found on U.S. coasts.
• Plastic bags harm wildlife. The bags are often mistaken as food by both
domesticated and wild animals. Birds may also use them for nesting material with
dangerous results. Untold numbers of animals die per year by ingesting plastic
bags. These animals typically suffer painful deaths, choking on the plastic or having
it impede digestion Plastic bags entangle and sometimes strangle turtles,
whales, sea lions, seals, birds, and fish among other species.  Many of these
animals are already threatened due to over-fishing and/or habitat loss. The list of
local animals threatened by plastic bags includes green turtles that nest on
Nantucket and right whales that feed off the Massachusetts coast line.
• Plastic bags do not biodegrade and although they do break apart through
mechanical action and photodegradation in the presence of light, these processes
take up to 1000 years to complete. When the bags finally do break down, they do not
dissolve into benign substances; they just fracture into smaller and smaller bits called
“microplastics.” These small particles present a tremendous long-term danger, as
these particles displace food supplies in our oceans. They have a nearly identical
density of seawater so their removal is not possible. Once microplastics enter our
oceans, they will stay there.
Only 5.2% of our plastic bags are recycled. This problem requires a nonrecycling
solution primarily because plastic bags are an extremely low-value product.
The difficulty in collecting, sorting and controlling for the quality of plastic bags makes
recycling this product cost-prohibitive.

For all of the above reasons, single-use plastic bag consumption needs to be heavily
reduced. Because plastic bags are virtually cost-free and convenient, legislation will be
necessary in order to change the behavior of consumers and the retail industry. Voluntary
efforts thus far have come up short.

All these noted bills allow the use of paper bags without any fees or restrictions. In our
region, almost all paper bags are made up of 80% recycled content – some have 100%
recycled content. They’re also recycled by consumers at a very high rate, enjoying an
existing structure to recycle them efficiently. Although paper has a higher initial CO2
footprint, it doesn’t kill animals, persist in the environment, or wreak the kind of permanent
environmental damage that plastics do.

H.696 proposes exceptions for two types of plastics derived from organic sources: ASTM
D6400, specifying a compostable plastic which breaks down into CO2 and water, and ASTM
D7081, which does the same in a marine environment. While both of these types of bags
biodegrade, they are not without significant drawbacks. They are made from starchy plant
materials, typically corn. Using these to circumvent our current habit of HDPE bags would
divert badly needed resources from the agricultural system. Our use of ethanol in gasoline
drove up corn prices outside the US, and making our plastic bags out of corn would
undoubtedly have a similar effect. The real answer lies with decreasing our dependency on
all disposable single-use bags.

A number of manufacturers are promoting so-called “oxo-degradable” or ASTM D5272 bags.
ASTM D5272 does not measure the environmental aspects of the product, but only its ability
to withstand sunlight exposure. ASTM D5272 bags are NOT biodegradable, but simply
degradable – meaning that they break into small bits. Furthermore, it appears that the vast
majority of these bags are made from HDPE (in varying percentages). Although some
companies promote their ASTM D5272 bags as degrading into non-toxic or inert particles,
this does not mean they are environmentally benign.

As a response to public pressure against plastic bags, on March 12, 2009, the Mass Food
Association entered a voluntary agreement with the Mass DEP to commit major
supermarkets to a 33% decrease in plastic bag use by the year 2013. A 33% reduction, if
realized, would rank us last in effectiveness among all places that have enacted ANY
regulation concerning plastic bags – even below Botswana and Burma. However, the Sierra
Club has received reports from across the state of no change in behavior at supermarkets.
No evidence has been provided to support a change in the industry, nor has an independent
body verified any change in bag use. Additionally, the performance data referenced to
support voluntary action is gathered by the supermarkets’ lobby firm and is not audited.
An inspection of many checkout stations at Star Market, Stop and Shop, and Home Depot
clearly show that only plastic bags are available – not paper. Observers have noted that
supermarket cashiers still regularly double bag groceries, and place bulky items with
handles, such as boxes of detergent, in plastic bags. Whatever training being done to help
achieve this voluntary goal is not having a meaningful impact.

Even if we were to achieve a 33% reduction in plastic checkout bag use, we would still have
67% of these bags adrift in the waste stream and in the environment. The very reason to
decrease plastic bag use is that they enter the environment and wreak havoc on wildlife.
Around the world, when plastic bag bans are implemented, the next day, nothing bad
happens. People still shop for groceries. Some of them bring reusable bags, some buy cloth
bags, some use paper. People don’t buy fewer groceries.

Legislation is a realistic solution. Plastic bag bans or surcharges have already been put in
place in countries, provinces and cities all over the world, including: Brookline MA,
Manchester MA, Nantucket MA, as well as China, Canada, Israel, Belgium, Italy, Ireland,
Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Thailand, several
states in India, three states and territories of Australia, 30 rural villages in Alaska, Westport
CT, Edmond WA, Bangladesh, Malawi, Germany, Sweden, Paris, San Francisco, Oakland,
Washington DC, Brownsville TX, Mexico City, North Carolina’s Outer Banks Region, and for
the past 20 years, Nantucket Island.

Single use plastic bags are contributing to serious issues facing Massachusetts, the United
States and the World, including energy production, public health, global warming, and
species conservation. Tackling these issues will require the culmination of many small
actions bring about large change. Banning plastic bags is an important and easily
implemented step towards meaningful change.

The Sierra Club has long been committed to minimizing the negative environmental impact
of human activity and because this legislation would significantly reduce such impact from
plastic bags we hope this committee will report these bills favorably.

Ryan Black
Massachusetts Sierra Club

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