Environmental advocacy at its finest

A New York Post Op-Ed warns of a potential "dark side" to Whole Foods' ban on plastic bags.

Published April 16, 2008 8:30PM (EDT)

In Wednesday's New York Post, Jeff Stier decries Whole Foods' decision to no longer offer their customers plastic bags and instead only provide the option of paper or reusable canvas totes. In the piece, Stier argues passionately for the continued availability of plastic bags. His justification? Aside from claiming that plastic bags are better to pick up dog droppings and paper can't be used to line garbage cans, Stier writes, "paper has its own drawbacks, such as: it's preferred by cockroaches -- like those contributing to New York City's asthma epidemic."

Elaborating about how cockroaches like to lay their eggs in the folds of paper bags, Stier then quotes a scientist who says, "sensitivity to cockroach exposure is widespread in our nation -- not just in the inner cities." Based on this correlation, Stier condemns Whole Foods, saying, "If Whole Foods' 'green' move starts a trend among food stores, it may contribute to New York's asthma epidemic."

At the end of the article, Stier adds, "Blindly following environmental extremists might make you feel good, but there is a dark side. Recall the millions of unnecessary malaria deaths that have resulted from Rachel Carson's 'green' effort to ban DDT." (Salon debunked the Carson malaria link here.)

While Stier’s concern about New York City's high asthma rates is commendable, there are a few reasons to view his warning with a bit of skepticism. First of all, the negative impact plastic bags have on the environment is well documented. As Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski wrote in a 2007 article titled "Plastic bags Are Killing Us":

"They're made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

"Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide -- about 2 percent in the U.S. -- and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries. They can spend eternity in landfills…"

Secondly, there's ACSH. Though the nonprofit organization has been a longtime denouncer of the tobacco companies, on other health and environmental matters, the group's positions have been somewhat more controversial. For instance, the group referred to the official ban on DDT as "unfortunate," has labeled the public's aversion to the use of chemicals on food products as "chemophobia," and according to Sourcewatch, dismissed the dangers of global warming. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, one of the co-founders of ACSH, has also made a name for herself by coining such phrases as "toxic terrorists" and "voodoo research."

And then there's the matter of ACSH's funding. The group has long had close ties to the chemical industry. The organization has not disclosed the identity of its donors since the '90s, but in the past, such corporations as Monsanto, Pfizer, Exxon, Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical U.S.A. and DuPont have contributed significantly to ACSH.

In an address celebrating the 25th anniversary of ACSH, Whelan stated, "The important thing, though, is not the source of your funding but the accuracy of the points you make, and ACSH's scientific advisors and use of peer review keep us honest."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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