By Cecelia Marshall (For Reporting Public Affairs Course at the University of Arizona)
Plastic bags can be seen scattered throughout Tucson; stuck in cacti fluttering in the wind, blowing down the sidewalk, or trapped in ditches at the side of the road.
It is estimated that 182 million plastic bags are used each year in Pima County, according to the Pima Association of Governments. And of them, only about 57 percent are being recycled in the city, a local environment group reported.
The Tucson City Council has recognized the environmental and economic issues and is addressing it with a working group and potential harsher restrictions.
Since being initiated by Councilman Paul Cunningham at a Tucson City Council meeting this last February, a group of representatives from associations like Arizona Food and Marketing Alliance and Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, have all come to the table with the goal to reduce the amount of single use plastic bags.
The group is meeting consistently twice a month and will bring recommendations to the mayor and city council members by August on how to best proceed with reducing plastic bag consumption. What the recommendation will be is the real question.
Besides further community education and awareness and expansion of the current ordinance, other options on the table for the city’s future is a fee, tax, or ban. The latter two are making the local businesses and the retail community squeamish.
The current ordinance, in effect since 2009, has required large retail chains to set up plastic bag recycling terminals at the front of stores and transport the recycled bags to a facility near Phoenix where the materials are made into Trex, alternative composite lumber, and used in products like outdoor lawn furniture.
Under the ordinance, Arizona Food Marketing Alliance and the Arizona Retailers Association compile a report of the amount of material collected and recycled annually for the city.
In the first six months of the ordinance, over 100 tons was reported recycled, 300 tons in the next year, and by year two, over 500 tons had been recycled, according to reported data.
However local environmental groups are ousting the ordinance’s deficiencies.
“Evidence is mounting that the voluntary efforts of plastic bag recycling is nothing more than feel good actions for governments, retailers, and citizens to assume that everything is taken care of once the bags are out of sight and out of mind,” said Gabe Wigtil, recycling chairman for the Sierra Club during a Tucson City Council meeting in February.
As of 2009, McClatchy Newspapers reported 90 billion plastic bags a year are unrecycled in the United States. So while the general consensus of community members promotes the reduction, reuse and recycling, many don’t follow through.
The current ordinance from 2009 makes it difficult to measure how effective it is in grocery stores, he said. Wigtil wants a more concrete method. Fees or a complete ban on single use plastic bags is the only effective approach instead of recycling, he proposed.
However, Tucson’s business community is worried about what a potential ban or fee may do to business.
“Our members appreciate reducing, reusing and recycling aspects of the ordinance,” said Allyson Solomon for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
But of course, there is going to be some pushback against something different, Solomon said.
Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is reaching out to the local business community to understand their worries about the future with a potential fee or ban.
The fiscal impact on businesses in Tucson is unknown, she said. Large retail chains, corner stores like Circle K, would be affected yet restaurants left exempt. While there are potential costs with fees or bans, there could also be some unknown ones if the program expanded Solomon said.
“We need to do this but we cannot harm small business and local businesses and the consumer,” Councilmember Cunningham said at the Tucson City Council Meeting in February.
Some supposed benefits of bag bans may even have unintended consequences which create even more environmental harm. After Ireland enacted a plastic bag tax, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. But this only related to grocery bags. Non-grocery bags such as black garbage bag sales increased 400 percent.
Patrick Gleason, state-affairs manager of Americans for Tax Reform shared his view:
“Bags from the store I usually keep to reuse again, to line waste bins, clean up after a pet, ect. So when you don’t have a stockpile built up and aren’t saving these bags, you have to go buy new ones. This goes together with the nonsensical nature of this policy, which has no positive impact on the environment,” Gleason said.
Philip Rozenski, director of marketing and sustainability for Hilex Poly, the largest manufacturer of plastic-bags in the U.S. told National Review Online last year, “It has been shown over and over again that bags are less than 3 percent of litter and in many locations, like San Francisco before the ban, it was less than 1 percent of litter.”
“60 percent of the bags are reused as bin liners by consumers,” Rozenski said.
Bag bans and taxes also may hurt lower-income houses especially in the south Tucson area by adding unnecessary expenses to daily life. The composite lumber companies, such as the collection facility located in Phoenix, affected by potential new bans or fees may also hurt the local industry.
There will always be an environment, business, and consumer view and it’s the goal of the working group to identify the impacts on each group and develop the best decision, McCabe said.
“We want to take the program and enhance and expand,” said McCabe.
At the same time, it might be unclear that a fee would have any benefit at all.
Assistant city manager, Andrew Quigley told Arizona Daily Star recently he is skeptical a fee or ban would work although he gets annoyed by the bags flying through the environment too.
Before Councilman Cunningham brought this issue to the table in February, Mike Varney, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce asked him, “Do you think the plastic bag knows it’s been taxed? Is the City Council really serving the highest priorities and needs of the city of Tucson by focusing on plastic bags when we have much bigger problems?” reported the Arizona Daily Star.
Stephen Pauken, City Manager for the City of Bisbee has also been seeing a lot of apathy from his retailer community. He recently presented the working group with examples from Bisbee’s ordinance.
“Retailers haven’t been coming to the meetings in Bisbee,” Pauken said. We want to establish a relationship with these folks and create communication but it’s hard to do when major retailers are telling store managers not to talk to anyone from the city, he said.
Bisbee currently has a voluntary compliance in place though the city has also proposed a fee. The fee would generate money that would go to local businesses enforcing the fee and the remainder would go into a special fund by Bisbee to purchase reusable bags, support for recycling, public education, and administrative costs, Pauken said.
Though the three options on the table; a continued ordinance, a $.05 cent fee per bag, or a ban, Pauken says no one wants the fee. The time, energy and work to enforce the fee, set up a new account fund for the city, a new mode to collect the fee and tax and workers to monitor this effort would be a lot more than it’s worth, he said.
“It would mean an entirely new routine and it would be icky,” he said.
While Pauken gives the Tucson working group information about Bisbee’s progress, he knows that “Tucson is a whole other animal,” Pauken said. Bisbee only has a couple chain supermarkets to work with whileTucson has about 75, he said.
Tucson will not be copying one jurisdiction in particular but for now the group is gathering anecdotal evidence from cities and municipalities with bans and fees like Seattle, Portland, Santa Monica, and San Francisco, the only city in the U.S. to have a complete ban since 2007.
“A complete ban would be a big deal; useful to an extent but there are other options, too,” Eric Albert, a Tucson local who has volunteered numerous times with roadside clean ups.
But plastic bag bans have started around the world. In China, retailers who give out plastic bags can be fined up to $1,464 , McClatchy reported in 2009. Since the ban, China’s supermarkets plastic bag use dropped about 66 percent or almost 40 billion plastic bags, according to China Chain Store and Franchise Association.
Although consumers don’t realize it, the cost of their “free bags” at the grocery store is passed on to them in the form of higher grocery prices of products. The annual cost to US retailers for using plastic bags is $4 billion.
Reducing is all about personal choice, said Wigtail. It begins with the consumer’s decision to make a change. So far, a lot of the community has started to use reusable plastic bags, Wigtail said. The movement “Bag It Empire” started by Empire High School senior Maddy Bynes, is just one example of a movement to reduce, recycle, and clean up plastic bag litter around the community.
“The benefits far outweigh the detriments,” Wigtil said. “If you look at environmental and health impacts, it’s a no brainer,” Wigtil said.
Plastic bags never break down completely, only into smaller pieces that can be leaked into our ecosystem and ingested by organisms like ourselves which lead to hormonal health problems caused by BPA.
They also have tremendous impact on landfill. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to manage windblown litter by the environmental services in the Los Reales Landfill, off I-10 and Craycroft. Bags that aren’t disposed properly clog sewer lines and result in costly repairs and maintenance for cities like Tucson.
“The average use of a plastic bag is 12 minutes,” Councilman Cunningham said. And after it’s tossed around through the air, it stays with us and isn’t decomposed in the ground. It’s a local issue as well as a global issues and to be a city that is a leader in sustainability, it is fundamental we are well educated, take part in reduce, reuse, recycle and also take steps to do so.”
Behavioral modification is key, said Pauken. And many people in the working group will agree.
“Ultimately everything will go well because we all have the same goal. We are all working together,” Solomon said.