Can plastic bags save the planet?

Stephen Joseph's Save the Plastic Bag Coalition maintains that they're good for the environment -- and the economy

Topics: Pacific Standard, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Texas, Plastic Bags, California,

Can plastic bags save the planet?
This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

It’s hard to imagine that the attorney Stephen Joseph wasn’t seized by a fit of contrarian glee when he adopted the name “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition” for his organization, back in 2008. After all, most people advocating controversial industrial causes seek out names vague enough to induce a coma. But Joseph and his coalition aren’t hiding; for the past four years, they’ve waged an in-your-face, rhetorical and legal assault on the scientific claims and legislative efforts promoted by the growing legion of would-be bag banners—who regard the ubiquitous single-use plastic bag as an intrusive icon of throw-away consumerism run amok. Almost everything the antibag crusaders think they know about plastic bags, Joseph insists, is flat-out wrong, and whatever legislative solutions they propose will only make the nonexistent problem worse. But when pressed about the coalition’s name, Joseph seems surprised that anyone might find it audacious. “I’m pure passion,” he insists, “but no spin.”

Pacific Standard Like beauty and pornography, spin clearly lies in the eye of the beholder. Bag-ban advocates are quick to acknowledge Joseph as a force to be reckoned with. But they complain that he’s guilty of the same rhetorical excesses he charges them with. “To be effective, you need to be credible,” says the antiplastic-bagger Andy Keller, who appears at bag-banning rallies throughout California dressed in a “Bag Monster” costume. “But Joseph and the industry don’t even acknowledge there is a problem.”

Indeed he doesn’t. Other than collecting as litter on the highway—which Joseph abhors—plastic bags, he insists, pose no environmental threat. They occupy negligible space in landfills; they don’t get blown out to sea; and to the extent that plastics are killing sea life, he charges, the real culprit is abandoned plastic fishing nets, not shopping bags. But Joseph takes his argument one step further: he claims that plastic bags are, in fact, environmentally superior to paper bags, and better even than the increasingly fashionable reusable bags as well. The latter, he contends, are too resource-intensive, not to mention unsanitary. As for paper bags, when they biodegrade in landfills, he notes, they give off methane gas, which is far more destructive to the climate than mere carbon dioxide. By contrast, Joseph points out on his website, plastic molecules don’t break down for at least 500 years. Because of this, he concludes, plastic bags should be valued rather than vilified; they function as mini carbon traps that cumulatively help stabilize global climate conditions. “It’s the perfect solution: no emissions,” he exclaims. “Heavenly!”



Stephen Joseph never wanted to get into the bag-ban wars, and did his utmost to stay out. A native of Manchester, England, Joseph moved to the United States in 1978, studied law, and passed the bar in 1980. For a while, he worked as a lobbyist for the renewable-energy industry. “I hate to tell you, but I’m a Democrat,” he said in a recent interview.

Eventually he moved to San Francisco, where he sued City Hall for not doing enough to clean up litter and graffiti. He also played a major role in the suit against the manufacturers of Oreo cookies and the entire trans-fat industry over the health impacts of its products. (He withdrew the lawsuit within days, saying the publicity generated by the act of filing the suit educated consumers about the hidden dangers of trans fats.)

Joseph was first approached by two plastic-bag companies on April Fool’s Day, in 2007. “For nearly a year I told them no,” he recounts. Only after environmentalists killed a curbside recycling program hatched by the plastic-bag industry did he sign on the dotted line. Ban advocates are quick to dismiss Joseph and his coalition as a “front group” for the bag industry; court records indicate that many bag makers belong to his coalition and aWall Street Journal article noted Joseph is paid “well into six figures” from the coalition firms. Joseph is equally quick to point out that people who have nothing to do with the industry also belong. Court records bear that out as well.

* * *

Today, turning plastic’s preternatural permanence—its chief vice, according to environmentalist critics—into an eco-virtue is one of Joseph’s more nimble arguments. But most of Joseph’s considerable energy and outrage are spent shredding the most high-flying misconceptions and straw men perpetuated by the ban-the-bag movement. For example—as marine-debris scientists readily acknowledge—there is no island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. Nor is there a scientifically defensible basis for the frequently cited allegation that plastic bags kill 100,000 sea mammals and one million seabirds a year. “Oh, please!” Joseph objects. “They’re just making this stuff up. Have they no standards?”

The research oceanographer Kara Lavender Law, of the national Sea Education Association, and Dianna Parker, of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, agree that the popular notion of a “garbage patch”—a term that first emerged in the 1990s—distorts the actual picture. In reality, they say, vast swaths of ocean have been polluted with confetti streams of microplastics. If scientists sifted through 2,000 bathtubs’ worth of plastic-contaminated seawater, Lavender Law says, they’d find just enough microparticles to fill the palm of a person’s hand. “People might feel duped when they discover there are no floating islands of garbage,” she says, “but the reality is still of serious concern.” Not only are microplastics impossible to clean up,  she says, but they are often found in greatest concentration where marine life is most abundant, and the confetti tends to absorb DDT, PCB, and other industrial toxins. And sea creatures eat them. “The risk is clearly there,” Lavender Law stresses.

Parker cautions against Joseph’s inclination to dismiss anecdotal accounts of whales, sea turtles, and seabirds turning up dead, bellies bulging with plastic bags. (The media and environmentalists conspicuously fail to mention, Joseph contends, that other junk items—like T-shirts and pants—also wind up in the stomachs of dead whales. Nor is it clear, he adds, how any of this contributed to the deaths of any of these creatures.) “Plastic is plastic is plastic,” concludes Parker. “There’s not a lot of data to say how many birds will die because of it, but we know they shouldn’t be eating it.”

While Joseph is quick to joust over such matters, his chief function as the head of the Save the Plastic Bags Coalition is that of legal enforcer. If cities or counties throughout California want to pass restrictions on plastic bag usage—and to date, nearly 50 have—they can expect a visit from Joseph. Earlier this year, officials in the small seaside town of Carpinteria, 84 miles north of Los Angeles, enacted a wide-ranging ordinance that even banned plastic bags from restaurants selling takeout food—a measure most cities avoid for strictly political reasons. Joseph warned them not to in advance, but when they persisted, he sued. He’s arguing that the city council usurped California’s health and safety codes governing restaurants’ sanitation and food preparation. Such codes, he insists, are the sole and exclusive domain of state regulators.

In 2007, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed a ban on most plastic bags, making it the first city in the state and the nation to do so. And as California goes, so often goes the nation: more than 30 states have enacted or proposed some form of plastic-bag restrictions to date. (The most immediate and effective way to curb consumption of single-use bags—whether paper or plastic—is by imposing fees or surcharges, as proven in Ireland and China.)

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has argued in lawsuits filed throughout the state that any anti-bag measures violate California’s Environmental Quality Act: municipalities must first determine the environmental impacts caused by the increased consumption of paper bags that would result from a plastic ban. That environmentalists would seek to avoid such environmental review, Joseph finds to be the “height of hypocrisy.” (Local governments and the bag banners have tried to avoid the necessity of environmental review by crafting bans that also impose fees on paper. Joseph and the plastic bag industry have maintained that such fees constitute a new tax under the terms of Prop 26—an antitax initiative passed by California voters in 2011—and must first be ratified by a super-majority of the electorate.)

* * *

The “Bag Monster,” Andy Keller, concedes that because of Joseph’s legal challenges, cities and counties have been forced to draft smarter and better ordinances. “We’re seeing better legislation, so I suppose Stephen Joseph can take credit for some of that,” he says. Keller, it should be noted, was sued by a handful of plastic-bag companies—some of them members of the coalition. He was accused of publishing factually unsupportable allegations about the bag industry. Ultimately, that litigation—to which Joseph was not a party—ended in a settlement sufficiently complicated that both sides claim victory. In the grand scheme of things, Keller says he sees Joseph and the coalition as part of a strategy by an “antiquated industry with a failing antiquated business plan” to buy time rather than embrace change. Joseph counters that he’s intent on ensuring that environmental policy be based on sound science rather than “distortions, exaggerations, and misinformation.”

According to Edward Humes, in his new book, Garbology, the average American generates 102 tons of trash in a lifetime. That’s twice what we generated in 1960; it’s also twice the per capita rate in Japan today. “Plastic bags have become a poster child for a culture of easy disposability,” says Kathi King, a member of Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council.

Joseph’s response: “Our entire economy is based on waste. We produce stuff we don’t need; tourism is waste. How far is this going to go?” he says. “I have a five-word answer for you: zero waste equals zero commerce.”

At the end of the day, it’s doubtful Joseph will stop that many governments intent on enacting bag bans. Plastic bags make up a small fraction of the 250 million tons of trash Americans toss out each year. Most of that waste stream remains out of sight and hence, out of mind.  Inconveniently for Joseph and his coalition members, plastic bags do not. They’re almost as full-frontal as he is. Joseph can and will continue to argue about the extent—if any—to which plastic bags pose a genuine environmental problem. Regardless, the solution is simplicity itself, requiring only minor changes in personal habits. As public consciousness grows regarding America’s monumental trash, plastic bags will continue to find themselves in the political crosshairs of environmental activists. And Stephen Joseph will remain a very busy man.

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