The Summit County Council Wednesday held their first discussion about a ban on single-use plastic bags.
States and communities across the country have instituted such bans. However, the county’s landfill superintendent also presented data to the Council that suggested the answer to the plastic issue isn’t simple.
Assistant County Manager Janna Young reported that just for the period of 2015 to 2016, 23 states looked at some 77 legislative proposals to ban plastic bags. A number of cities and mountain towns have banned the bags, often with fees charged for paper bags.
Young said in nine or ten cases, state legislatures have approved prohibitions against such bans. She said in cases where the plastic bans have been revoked, that is due to referendums, legislation or a reaction to lawsuits in court.
The staff reported a number of factors in favor of the bag ban. The bags utilize fossil fuels, create unsightly litter, clog up streams and they are costly to recycle, and it’s increasingly difficult to find operations that will handle the recycling.
At the same time, County Landfill Superintendent Tim Loveday said from his perspective, the bag bans are emotional or political decisions, not necessarily based on science.
But he added that nobody hates the bags more than him, since he has to chase after them at the county dump.
“When those things are ejected from a garbage truck, it is an absolute nightmare for us to deal with them,” Loveday explained. “That makes them to me primarily a nuisance issue. That’s something we control with fence and daily cover and we keep fighting. And we need to do a better job throughout the public and throughout training the public on how to manage those plastic bags, if they’re going to be here. Cause we don’t do a very good job of that right now.”
Loveday said his big priority is diverting waste from the landfill. But he said plastic bags don’t take up much space. They are less than one-tenth of one percent of the trash, or about 23 tons a year.
He said a plastic bag ban means their cost to manage waste goes up some 700 percent. That’s because consumers turn to paper bags.
“Paper bags use more clean water to produce,” Loveday continued. “They pick up more landfill space. They produce more greenhouse gas both in their manufacture and once they’re placed in the landfill. So to address plastic bags without addressing paper bags just compounds the problem even more.”
A ban also means that the sale of bigger four-gallon or eight-gallon plastic bags increases dramatically, and those bags have thicker material.
One complaint has concerned the impacts of plastic on the oceans, and Loveday said as a sailor, he understands that. But he said data shows that 95 percent of the plastic pollution in the ocean comes from 10 rivers—eight of those in Asia and two in Africa. The U.S. contributes less than one percent of the problem.
Loveday said there can be a health and safety concern with re-useable bags. In his house they have re-useables, but they use plastic for items like meat or produce. He cited a recent study.
“San Francisco was the first municipality to really jump in and ban bags as a major municipality,” Loveday said. “Five years after that, George Mason and University of Pennsylvania stepped in and did a study. And what they found was that the bacteriological fatalities in that locale increased by 50 percent after the ban of bags, that ER visits increased about the same amount. So those type things have put even our own representatives in the Health Department at great concern on whether from a safety standpoint, is it safe to ban bags or not is the bottom line. It’s chicken and meats and stuff leaking out of the bags.”
“Oh, contaminating.” Council member Doug Clyde said.
“They don’t wash them” Loveday added.
However, County Council Member Glenn Wright wondered what the data is from Europe, where citizens have had re-usable bags for several years. He also said that he’s had a bag for seven or eight years, just recently washed it, and he hasn’t gotten sick.
Wright also asked if a community could ban both plastic and paper bags.
Loveday said that’s been done in Hawaii, and one simply gets accustomed to it.
Janna Young also said they have to be mindful of how restrictions might impact low-income residents. She noted her experience working in Denver City government.
“The big concern was the impact of—because you could still get bags at the store, but you would have to pay a fee,” Young explained. “That would adversely impact lower-income folks that are on food stamps or whatever to do their groceries. So I think it would be more incumbent upon us if we were to do something like that to provide re-usable bags free of charge to accommodate that situation. I think that’s the only comment I have. I think if you are going to do that, you have to still provide an alternative.”
County Council did not make a decision on a possible ban.