The case against plastic bags

Cupertino Council Mtg Jan 15 2013
“Anyone using single use plastic bags is contributing to the litter problem,” said Sunnyvale solid waste manager Mark Bowers

Watching the recent Cupertino City Council meeting on banning plastic bags, I was interested to hear the perspective of the solid waste manager for the City of Sunnyvale, Mark Bowers, who has 35 years of experience. You can hear what he has to say here, starting around 3:06 into the January 15 hearing.

Mark Bowers made clear that he was bringing a different perspective to the issue, a little bit of “what goes on behind the curtain, after the waste goes in the garbage.” He noted that many of those concerned about bag bans seem to assume that the problem of plastic bags in the environment is a litter issue caused by bad people. “But anyone using single use plastic bags is contributing to the litter problem,” he explained, “maybe not at your home or in your own city even, but later on in the solid waste handling process. Because the bags are fugitives…. They’ll escape when you unload the truck at the transfer station, they escape from landfills. In our business we call them Landfill Angels, because they’re plastered on vegetation…, the wind picks them up and carries them off into the landscape.” He added: “I have had the experience on a windy day of walking around in waist-deep billows, snowdrifts of plastic shopping bags. They are very very aerodynamic, and that’s the reason we’re focusing on that type of bag.”

In response to a question from a councilmember, Mark Bowers shared his experience with the harsh reality of recycling for post-consumer plastic like single-use bags: “In a technical sense, yes, you can recycle plastic bags, and very many of them are recycled in a pre-consumer setting where they are clean consistent product… When you get into post-consumer plastic film it’s much more difficult then you have contaminants like breadcrumbs, moisture, paper shopping receipts and things like that that make it difficult. We accepted them for a while at the Sunnyvale transfer station that also serves Mountain View and Palo Alto. After a while our supplier quit taking them, they said your stuff is not good enough.” And he noted that many grocery stores that also accept plastic bags in bins are not recycling them: the city of Sunnyvale was told by store owners: “There was no one who would take them, they didn’t have enough value.”

Save The Bay has been making this point for years, but coming from a professional with Mark Bowers’ experience I think it carries particular weight.

Listen to the council meeting here.