Real Plastic Trees: What California’s Stance on the Bag Ban Means for the Environment

Website: Belgrave Trust Blog

This is the season of plastic bags stuck in trees. Stray shopping bags–many of them white, with handles, perhaps from a deli or a fruit-and-vegetable store originally–roll along the streets, fill with air, levitate like disembodied undershirts, fly, snag by their handles in the branches. Trees wave them in the breeze. They luff an whirr like spinnakers and twist into knots. Daniel, a guy who works at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was removing a plastic bag from a Japanese flowering cherry tree at the eastern Parkway entrance with a leaf rake as I walked by. He held the rake above him at arm’s length and snatched at the bag with the tines. It took him a while; finally, he pulled the bag down and squashed it into a ball in his hand. I asked if I could see it. Its blue logo read, “MARTIN PAINT…’It Ain’t Just Paint.’ “

-Ian Frazier, “Stuck in Trees”

I came across Ian Frazier’s now iconic New Yorker essay the other day, in a May, 24, 1993 issue of the magazine I’d found, jumbled amongst late-80s Gourmet’s and 70s Good Housekeeping’s, in the consignment store down the street from my apartment. In a nation of people largely apathetic to plastic bags, Frazier stands out. Not content with mere grumbling, Frazier and two of his friends, Tim and Bill McClelland, formed a “Bag Snagger” society and started spending their Saturdays patrolling the sidewalks and parks of the five boroughs, using an improvised elongated rake to snag the bags from their treeside perches. Eventually the men had their snagging device patented, and started what is now, in Frazier’s estimation, a “multi-hundred dollar” company, Bag Snaggers Inc.

The Bag Snatchers garnered a fair amount of success, earning Parks and Rec volunteer cards, an order from Bette Midler for the clean-up crew she sponsors, a free lunch from an elderly woman on the UES, a $1 bill, trips to the banks of the Mississippi and Los Angeles Rivers on snagging missions, and a standing invitation to remove the mylar balloons that dot the starry green sky of Grand Central’s dome. Frazier wrote two follow-up pieces for the New Yorker, “Bags in Trees II,” and “Bags in Trees: A Retrospective,” appeared as himself in the film Blue in the Face, talking about bags.

In their heyday,the Bag Snaggers removed hundreds of bags a week, upwards of ten thousand a year. That leaves approximately 999,990,000 bags floating down our streets, clogging up our landfills, strangling marine life, and, yes, hunkering down in our trees. The easiest way to decrease that number is, of course, to put a ban on the production and dispersal of plastic bags, as California attempted to do with AB 1998, a measure put forth by Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).

Among the bill’s stipulations:

  • After July 2011, stores are forbidden to provide customers with plastic bags.
  • Stores must either make reusable bags available for purchase or, for a .$25 fee, provide paper bags.
  • The paper bag fees go straight to a Paper Bag Pollution Cleanup Fund, administered by the state treasury.
  • The treasury must deliver a report on the bill’s effectiveness, along with suggestions about further implementation of resuable bags, to the state legislature on or before January 2015.

AB 1998 is a very straightforward measure, but from its introduction this past February, the bill has been the subject of heavy controversy. Among the ayes were the California Grocers Association, environmental groups, municipal legislatures, and state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The nays included many Republican and some Democrat senators, who worried that the loss of jobs caused by the bill would override and environmental benefits, and the American Chemistry Council, which oversees the plants that produce plastic bags, and ran radio and television attack ads along with an extremely forceful and well-funded lobbying campaign.

Because Belgrave Trust is a green company, we’re often asked for our opinions on environmental issues, and while it’s hard not to go with our personal gut feelings, doing the research to validate or rescind them is worth the extra legwork. In the case of AB 1998, the facts, from a carbon-cutting perspective, are not decisive: on the one hand, plastic bags are made from polyethylene, a petroleum byproduct, they are not fully–nor cheaply–recyclable, not biodegradable, and emit dioxins and heavy metals when burned. On the other hand, to make paper bags, you need to kill trees, nature’s carbon capture devices, and you need to use 4 times the amount of energy you do in producing plastic bags. Add in paper’s 12% share of landfill methane (compared to plastic’s 4%), and the fact that, while some people do recycle their paper bags, most end up as cardboard, ie the demand for the bags doesn’t lower, and you’ve got yourself a pretty even battle.

The fact is, if you want to help the environment, you need to go the reusable bag route, which AB 1998 encourages but doesn’t mandate. Yes, plastic bags are horrid, and they certainly supply a very visceral reminder of how a seemingly trivial habit can damage the planet, but from an ecological and environmental perspective, paper bags aren’t much better—and in some cases, they’re worse (click here for a detailed visual breakdown on paper vs plastic).

So while, symbolically, the ratification of AB 1998 would have represented a huge step forward in the “Americans DO care about the environment” movement,” those in favor of it should take its rejection as a cause to create a more comprehensive, and more environmentally beneficial, plan of action.

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Real Plastic Trees: What California’s Stance on the Bag Ban Means for the Environment