The negative effects of thin-film plastic bags have generated much research and dialog. Even those who disagree with the ban as a method to address the problem will likely acknowledge that thin-film plastic bags are an environmental and health hazard to our community: they pollute our streets and forests; over time, they break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water; they are deadly to wildlife when ingested; and finally, they are produced from non-renewable resources that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions, causing global warming.
Plastic bags are also a financial burden for Flagstaff taxpayers. The City reports spending nearly $70,000 annually to clean up plastic bag litter at the landfill and another $62,000 annually in productivity losses due to bags clogging the recycling equipment at the Material Recovery Facility. Those focused on government efficiency can consider the ban as a fairly easy cost-saving budget measure.
While some argue that recycling bags should be our focus, the economics of that do not pan out. According to the Clean Air Council, recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000, while the recycled product can be sold on the commodities market for only $32. Bag Central Station — a voluntary recycling program in Flagstaff since 2008 —has not measurably reduced plastic bag litter at the landfill, and participation in the program has been inconsistent.
Communities all over the world have experienced similar results with their recycling programs. Those that registered more positive results invested heavily in their recycling programs, but still have failed to reach the same level of effectiveness as communities that enacted plastic bag bans. During the January discussion of the issue at the Flagstaff City Council meeting, some argued that they re-use plastic bags as garbage liners, extending their lifespan. What many might not realize is that, if a bag comes in contact with wet waste, it becomes contaminated and unsuitable for recycling. Reusing and recycling are often mutually exclusive when it comes to plastic bags.
Removing as many plastic bags as possible from circulation is the most effective and financially responsible solution to reduce plastic bag litter. And the Flagstaff public appears to be overwhelmingly supportive of such a simple solution. A representative citizen survey from 2013 states that 59 percent of respondents would support a ban — a solution that was also recommended by a citizen-driven Sustainability Commission that initiated the latest conversation on the plastic bag issue. Comments the Council has received so far, via e-mail and during public participation at the January work session, are also more supportive of the ban than of any other solution.
The key question is whether we want to spend more money to pursue an educational campaign at an ongoing cost to the taxpayers, with an uncertain outcome, or remove all point-of-sale thin-film plastic bags from circulation, with 100 percent effectiveness, at no cost to the taxpayers.
Removing plastic bags from circulation should not be our only focus, but our impetus to find other measures to reduce waste. We should also seek to eliminate small plastic water bottles and excessive food and other household goods packaging from our material stream as much as possible.