Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City Council: 42 North Sky

21. July 2008 • Juliew
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Monday, July 21 at 7:00 pm
Ann Arbor City HallAgenda


  • Presentation by DDA on status of design of S. Fifth underground parking structure (not a public hearing, just a presentation)
  • Resolution to Approve North Sky Planned Project Site Plan and Development Agreement, 31.77 Acres, West Side of Pontiac Trail, North of Skydale
  • Resolution to Approve 42 North Site Plan, Development Agreement and Wetland Use Permit, 15.32 Acres, 1430 South Maple Road
  • Changes regarding height and setbacks of buildings in areas other than downtown. These would increase the Floor Area Ratio, increase the maximum height for some zoning, and decrease minimum setbacks in the proposed areas.
  • Ordinance to prohibit the use of plastic grocery carry-out bags for large retail stores (any store with over $1 million in sales).

  1. Ah yes, so instead of allowing me to use plastic grocery bags that I can reuse for many other purposes (garbage bags, cat litter, transporting wet items or dirty laundry), the city thinks it’s greener to force me to use paper bags that I’ll just wind up recycling instead of reusing. Gee, thanks for nothing.

       —KEF    Jul. 21 '08 - 04:49AM    #
  2. KEF,

    It’s Stephen Rapundalo you need to thank for nothing.

    He was apparently inspired to take up this plastic-bag hating crusade after watching a video produced by some school children in his ward—a video that was singled out for special commendation by City Council at a recent meeting.

    The child-like message that resonated so completely with Rapundalo: “Plastic is BAD. Fish in the river hate plastic. We hate plastic, too.”

    So Rapundalo and the rest of Council seem poised to prove that nobody—not China and not San Francisco—hates plastic more than we do in Ann Arbor.

    Unless of course, that plastic is shaped like a gi-fucking-normous yard waste bin that’s holding the grass clippings that were collected by your gasoline-powered lawn mower. If that’s what the plastic is shaped like, then we love plastic in Ann Arbor. In fact, we love that plastic so much that we’ll deliver it to your house FOR FREE and come back every week to empty it into a giant smoke-belching truck and drive it five miles to the south side of town. All that just because you hate how messy those clippings make your lawn look.

    But holy shit, if your plastic is shaped like a bag, then well, tough. It’s hard to argue with a cute kid with a video (I mean, c’mon KEF, the kids made a whole video ... what is it about that you don’t get?) It also doesn’t matter that your bag is stamped with that 2 inside a rounded-corner triangle (as, e.g., Busch’s plastic bags are), and that the City has a curbside recycling program that accepts that kind of Number 2 plastic. You’ll have to find a different bag to put that cat’s number two in, because the curbside program only accepts ‘bottle-shaped’ Number 2 plastic. It would be unthinkable to approach this huge plastic bag problem with a recycling solution.

    After all, in rejecting a recycled plastic solution, aren’t we just taking a page from McDonough and Braungart’s seminal work, Cradle to Cradle, and steering ourselves towards paper bags that are made from at least 40% post-consumer … wait up … oh, that’s right ... my bad … that book was published on plastic pages. What the hell were those guys thinking? What a couple of dorks! They must not have seen the video those kids made.


    On a less sarcastic note, it’s worth pointing out that no input from Ann Arbor’s Environmental Commission has been received by Council on this issue. In early deliberations on the chicken ordinance, Rapundalo grumbled quite loudly about the lack of EC input on that issue (not that their eventual unanimous support had any effect on his thinking).

    It’s also worth thinking about whether the $1,000,000 annual gross sales really counts as a ‘large retail store’. The kind of store I think of in connection with ‘large retail store’ is Wal-Mart, Meijer, Busch’s, Hiller’s, Kroger. But what about Arbor Farms and the People’s Food Co-op? Not so much. But based on the $100K profit earned by PFC last year, I think they must have done better than $1M gross provided they’re somewhere near the industry-average margins of 1-2%. I wonder how much input on this issue was directly solicited from those city merchants who would be affected? I wonder if anyone even bothered to estimate how many merchants would be affected.

    I wonder how much, if any, thought was given to exploring the possibility of expanding curbside recycling to include non-bottle-shaped number 2 plastic?

    I wonder if the language of the ordinance which proscribes ‘providing’ the wrong kind of bag at point of sale (i.e., the checkout), would in fact disallow the sale of such bags … at the point of sale.

       —HD    Jul. 21 '08 - 04:01PM    #
  3. Sabra asked me to tell folks that action on 42 North will be postponed tonight at the request of Council member Marcia Higgins.

    Marcia said some people did not get notice of tonight’s public hearing. Others, on the other hand, can come tonight but cannot come in two weeks. Therefore, the public hearing will be split. People can make comments either tonight or in two weeks.

       —David Cahill    Jul. 21 '08 - 04:29PM    #
  4. Plastic bags have been successfully reduced or eliminated in a number of places in Britain and Ireland, tho partly thru campaigns of public education that have brought real support from both shoppers and retailers including supermarkets, e.g. publicizing the fact that the average life in actual use of a plastic grocery back was 12.5 minutes and that the vast, vast majority are not used more than once but instead end up at best in landfills but quite often snarled in trees, along roads, and fouling shorelines where they also endanger animals, esp. sea birds. Obviously, Americans may use their bags an average of 80 times each and always dispose of them properly so this probably has no relevance.

    In Ireland, and at some outlets in Britain, you can buy plastic bags but they are no longer free (this is actually a throw-back in some ways—it used to be, in a lot of shops before the really cheap and flimsy bags became ubiquitous, it was assumed you carried your own bag or basket but you could pay for a plastic “carrier bag”, which was the heavier-grade plastic but they were not free). During transition periods there have often been promotions giving out green bags (“bags for life”) either cheap or free, but probably the bigger thing has been education and getting both shoppers and shops on board. Modbury in Devon is the famous example, which you can read about here: but there are lots of stories on the same site and in many places, bags are not banned altogether but are not free. Obviously Rapundalo has been hamfisted at best here and has probably ensured that no sensible measure will get passed for awhile.

    In the places I know, it’s not a simple “all plastic is bad” message but something much more targeted to a specific kind of plastic waste which could be used much, much less than it is. And while I’d like to have curbside pickup on bags I wouldn’t substitute that for reducing their production and circulation, especially because of the ease with which the light plastic bags “escape” and simply become pollution.

    Agree about the grass clippings tho…

       —Aki    Jul. 21 '08 - 04:48PM    #
  5. Does anyone have a copy of the video?

       —Matt Hampel    Jul. 21 '08 - 06:05PM    #
  6. HD, I don’t know what happened last night, but any council member could have suggested that the plastic bag issue be sent to the Env. Comm. for input since it was first reading. I haven’t seen the resolution yet, but I’ll try to take a look soon.

    Here’s one perspective on the effects of plastic and plastic bags on our environment.

    Recycling plastic bags is a big energy loser and therefore not sustainable. In fact, in the past some plastics that were ostensibly collected for recycling were routinely landfilled for economic (based in energy costs) reasons, including returnable plastic soda bottles. I don’t know if that continues. Of course, single use is similarly unsustainable. The best we can do (once they have been made) is to reuse them as many times as possible. Ultimately, though, many end up in our environment (mainly lakes and oceans), killing animals, eventually endangering ecosystems. Reducing demand is a step toward sustainability and ecological restoration, but only one step.

       —Steve Bean    Jul. 21 '08 - 07:21PM    #
  7. Personally, the bags I bring home from the grocery store are what I put my garbage in. Paper bags wouldn’t work for that (especially for possibly damp kitchen garbage), so the likely net effect on my behavior would be to make me start buying plastic garbage can liners.

    Which makes the whole thing seem a little nuts to me. But maybe I’m missing something.

       —Bruce Fields    Jul. 21 '08 - 07:44PM    #
  8. Do you really use all of them, Bruce? Serious question—-I’m not being sarcastic. I would find that they held relatively little compared to paper grocery bags so I’d end up with many more of them on leaving the store, and then would end up with dozens of them over time. But I’m not sure I see the problem with the reduction of free bags causing you to buy plastic trash bags—those are typically larger and stronger and the very fact that you have to buy them might incline you to use them only as needed (using paper or just the garbage container some of the time). It’s the same as how introducing a low fee for plastic shopping bags may incline people to use them more carefully, whether that’s by re-using them for shopping or using them only as actually needed for wet trash etc.—-not never using them but not seeing them as costless. But I do get that this would be a bigger change in how Americans think about entitlement to free bags than it has been for Europeans.

       —Aki    Jul. 21 '08 - 08:20PM    #
  9. Bruce Fields wrote “ ... net effect on my behavior would be to make me start buying plastic garbage can liners. Which makes the whole thing seem a little nuts to me. But maybe I’m missing something.”

    Arguing the anti-plastic side, I think one could consider the set of all the plastic grocery bags carried out of stores and claim that some subset are put to ‘good use’ by people like Bruce Fields, but the remainder are not, and wind up wherever the wind blows them … into the Huron River, into Lake Michigan, etc. So if we eliminate all the plastic grocery bags carried out of stores, and Bruce Fields and his kind start buying plastic can liners, then we’re eliminating the plastic grocery bags that are currently not disposed of properly and blow wherever—which is a gain for wildlife that don’t get tangled up in them.

    But doesn’t this gain wind up being funded by … Bruce Fields and his kind? Why punish economically a group of people who are (I would say) currently behaving responsibly? Or should we analyze this as: Bruce has been getting a free ride up to now—not buying plastic bag liners like other people—so he’ll just have to start to pay his fair freight.

       —HD    Jul. 21 '08 - 08:41PM    #
  10. So, we regularly get paper bags from the grocery store and turn around and use them to hold our “in the house” recycling. With a few exceptions, they flow in roughly at the rate they flow out, ending up in the recycling bins along with their contents.

    How does this compare to using plastic bags, pros and cons? I assume reusing canvas bags would be better in the long run, but we haven’t made that transistion yet.


       —Eric    Jul. 22 '08 - 04:31AM    #
  11. Eric,

    Re: how plastic compares with paper on a re-use recycle basis in a household

    Our plastic grocery bags flow into the household at about the same rate that they flow out, but they flow out as containers for garbage—into the blue bins. Occasionally, we have to recruit plastic newspaper sleeves in addition to plastic grocery bags for scooping cat litter. If the ban passes, I supposed we might have to subscribe to additional publications in order to meet our plastic bag demands.

    Aki wrote: “But I’m not sure I see the problem with the reduction of free bags causing you to buy plastic trash bags—those are typically larger and stronger and the very fact that you have to buy them might incline you to use them only as needed (using paper or just the garbage container some of the time).”

    To me, the attraction of using a grocery plastic bag as a trash can liner is that the container for trash is necessarily small, thus setting household expectations for trash volume at: small. We use a 3-gallon metal pail as the main trash container for the house, lined nicely—up to now—with a plastic grocery bag.

    Over several years, the 3-gallon metal pail has dramatically reduced the amount of trash generated by our household. How? Any quart-size or larger container takes up a huge part of the trash can all in one go, so it prods you to look at that item and see if it isn’t on the recycling-acceptable list. That’s right, in Ann Arbor grayboard from a cereal box can go right into the recycling bin. Amazing how many ‘hard core’ recyclers don’t know or do that. Or, it makes you explore bulk purchase options where you refill the container for a lifetime, e.g., shampoo from the People’s Food Co-op. It’s not fun to just willy nilly fill up that 3-gallon pail and repeatedly have to truck it outside to the big blue bin. So you chip away at the household waste stream.

    Incidentally, this was part of the reason why the single automated blue bins have been successful (I think?) in a modest decrease in solid waste generation since their introduction. They’re pretty huge, but still for many households represented a new upper bound on their trash generation. So the concept has at least some merit on a community scale as well.

    Granted, if plastic grocery bags are banned, I won’t be completely out of luck. There’s probably something in the Hefty product line designed for little tiny trash cans. Maybe even something with twist-o-flex technology or cinch-sack drawstrings, perhaps doped with anti-bacterial, forest-fresh scent so that my trash would smell just like a pine tree.

    But I still like the idea of these grocery plastic bags as garbage bags with the implicit message, “Generate no more trash than will fit inside me.”

    Hmmm, what if we made that message explicit on the bags themselves?

    So here’s my suggestion: Don’t ban plastic grocery bags. Simply ask retailers to print exactly that kind of message on their own plastic bags. E.g., “Challenge: Generate no more waste per person per week than this bag can hold.” “Bag-o-Trash” Or let the slogans come from contest submissions, whatever.

    Measure success of the ongoing campaign by the impact on recycling and solid waste amounts per capita. Keep that data displayed on the web and freshly updated. Print the year’s graph RIGHT ON THE PLASTIC BAGS. Maybe some years we suck and we need to do better, but we print that anyway. That, it seems to me, is the kind of initiative we could actually work on as a community on a continuing basis. I can imagine competing with other communities to ratchet our solid waste numbers down.

    This proposed ban offers no opportunity that I see to continue to do anything as a community after the ban is passed. What are school kids supposed to do? Say, Hey, we got that ban passed? I’d rather have them running up to Kroger managers saying, Why can’t I buy stuff in bulk here?

    When there’s market pressure in a community to provide containerless shopping options—a pressure that comes from a desire to fit all your trash into a single plastic shopping bag—you wind up bringing the lowest impact consumption habits further into the mainstream.

    There’s an opportunity here to make this initiative into a serious attempt to lead the way in reduction of solid waste. It’d be a shame to waste it on the elimination of one kind of litter.

       —HD    Jul. 22 '08 - 10:12AM    #
  12. You also can recycle your paper bags at the Friends of the Library book sales.

       —Leah Gunn    Jul. 22 '08 - 03:07PM    #
  13. HD, I agree that in A2 one can easily limit how much garbage one has by using recycling throughly—-there are some weeks when I don’t even wheel the blue bin to the curb, there’s so little in it. But that’s why I was startled that Bruce gets thru that many bags just for garbage, and I suppose I’m startled that your in/out flow is so perfectly matched too. It seems to me that even with a ban on free bags at large retailers, I would still accumulate enough of them for any use I’d have and that paper bags also actually serve quite a lot of the time, even for damp-ish stuff if they go straight into the bin outside. But obviously none of us can generalize from our own experience too far.

    I do see two models for reducing plastic bag use—-the Modbury model where a lot of community action and education led to a really total ban with a lot of support in a very small place, or the Irish model which was pretty much ordered from above on a large scale thru not by banning bags but by taxing them (introducing a fee), and which cut the use of bags by 80-90% in a year. But I think that in both places, the notion was not just cutting consumption in general but reducing an especially pernicious and wasteful kind of plastic waste. And clearly there’s no consensus here that that matters.

       —Aki    Jul. 22 '08 - 04:06PM    #
  14. I feel bad throwing away oil when I throw away plastic bags. I favor a total ban on the things.

    One reason for my position is that over the past couple of months our store (Kroger on Plymouth Road) has become increasingly clever in forcing plastic bags on us. Do we get only paper bags when we ask for them? Oh, no! Even if Kroger’s honors our request for paper, the baggers perversely insist on packing a variety of items within plastic bags, and then putting them in the paper bags.

    Stop them before they bag again!

       —David Cahill    Jul. 22 '08 - 04:36PM    #
  15. “I was startled that Bruce gets thru that many bags just for garbage, and I suppose I’m startled that your in/out flow is so perfectly matched too.”

    You’re perhaps making erroneous assumptions about how many plastic bags Bruce’s and my shopping habits generate. Buying small quantities of fresh food with high frequency tends to result in many purchases that aren’t put in ANY kind of special bag—not a plastic grocery bag, not a paper grocery bag, not a canvas grocery bag, just the regular bag that I carry the rest of my usual crap in.

    “I do see two models for reducing plastic bag use …”

    What I’m saying is that rather than focusing on this too-narrow issue, we could focus on serious reduction in all solid waste generated by the community—and using plastic bags could play a postive role in that. [see rant above]

    It’s unfortunate now that we have an ordinance past its first reading that identifies a non-problem: “Too many plastic bags”. Solution: “Let’s ban them at their source”. And now we get public and business input on tweaking a solution. So the smaller plastic bags that many stores put frozen and meat products in before putting them in paper bags will likely be included in the exemptions along with produce bags. And the gross sales number might be adjusted. Whatever. All of that is just turd polishing.

    A more constructive approach to public service would have Rapundalo seeking input from more than just school kids on the identification of a specific problem. If the problem were identified as “Too much solid waste generated by our community” then you possibly get a solution that has more of an impact than eliminating some narrowly-defined kind of litter.

    Once again, I say we elevate the plastic grocery bag to the exalted status of an emblem of our community goal for solid waste generation per person per week.

    That will take more work on everyone’s part than getting on a I-hate-plastic-bags bandwagon.

       —HD    Jul. 22 '08 - 05:40PM    #
  16. I do think I understand you, HD, and I agree that Rapundalo’s doing this out of the blue and without engaging in a real conversation about different options was unhelpful. And my own shopping practices are very close to yours and Bruce’s, I think, but I am dubious about how representative we are or are going to be anytime soon.

    Where we disagree is that this is a “too-narrow” issue that should be shelved in favor of the maximally comprehensive reduction of every form of solid waste. As I’ve noted, other people in other places have come to the conclusion that the plastic grocery bag issue is one that deserves specific and urgent addressing because of specific environmental effects. You obviously don’t agree.

       —Aki    Jul. 22 '08 - 08:27PM    #
  17. “Where we disagree is that this is a “too-narrow” issue that should be shelved in favor of the maximally comprehensive reduction of every form of solid waste. As I’ve noted, other people in other places have come to the conclusion that the plastic grocery bag issue is one that deserves specific and urgent addressing because of specific environmental effects. You obviously don’t agree.”

    I think that’s a fair assessment.

    I’d be way more sanguine if there were a way of connecting this particular initiative as “one step” [cf. Steve Bean’s comment (6) above] in some some broader initiative. What is the logical next step? There’s any number of things one could identify as the next (arbitrary) thing to focus on, but is there a logical connection of that next step—whatever it might be—to having banned some number of plastic grocery bags?

    I mean, what I’m looking for is something like this: Now that we have addressed this urgent problem of plastic bags, we are in a position to tackle the problem of X. What I’m asking is: What’s X? I can’t think of an X that requires a plastic bag ban as a presupposition. I would ask that the Environmental Commission focus at least partly on trying to identify some X, (or trying to recast the bag ban so that there can be an X) as it’s called on by Council to engage the issue.

       —HD    Jul. 22 '08 - 09:48PM    #
  18. Fair question. Again, going only from what I know in other places that have, still, rather different cultures of shopping than in much of the US: one next step in Britain and Ireland has been about reducing packaging in general, e.g. by trying to concoct citizens’ campaign to remove unnecessary packaging and leaving it for the store to deal with right there on the belt at the register. These have had limited success, and they do have the unfortunate effect of creating hassle for the front-line employees, but they’re still probably more than any one town in the US could have because they have been national campaigns against national retailers.

    But they’ve had the nice effect of making it easier to fit all one’s groceries in a single bag or two (reused/reusable bag or purchased single plastic bag) when stuff isn’t in a plastic-sealed box that contains a plastic packet inside, or on a shrinkwrapped plastic tray that then contains a dozen mushrooms or shampoo in a bottle that’s half-encased in a box, etc. By creating hassles for retailers, the theory goes, one pressures them to pressure manufacturers. This has worked best with “own-brand” stuff from retailers who are already trying for the ethical market like the Co-op or Marks and Spencer in the UK but even then, it’s more than most people are willing to do (understandably) every single time, blocking the line to strip one’s purchases of unnecessary packaging before leaving the store. But in theory, that could be an X—pushing retailers to provide in-store, on-the-spot recycling with the goal of creating an incentive via the processing cost for them to push for less wasteful packaging altogether. Of course, A2 is just not enough of a market to make that pressure very serious for most retail chains or the manufacturers who supply them. And you’d also have to get people over the notion that multiple layers of wrapping are hygenic and professional and snazzy.

    Mind you, most places I’ve been in Britain or Ireland have relatively poor recycling at home compared to A2—-limited curbside pickup if any and fewer materials accepted.

    But I’m still okay with radically reducing the plastic bags even if no other progress towards major solid waste reduction happens immediately or as a direct result.

       —Aki    Jul. 22 '08 - 10:37PM    #
  19. HD, the “X” that I’ve identified is to become a sustainable community—environmentally, economically, and socially (wrt equity). We’ve started a committee of the Env. Comm. to look at parameters and funding requirements for a sustainable community program/initiative. The timeline is likely to be 6-12 months. We have plenty of information, technology, and models, we just have to help residents and businesses to overcome whatever barriers to adoption that they might have and recognize that our individual circumstances vary—so eliminating the use of plastic bags might work for some but not others (yet), for example, and certain changes have greater benefits than others (as you point out.)

    We’d like to involve stakeholders from the broader community to put this together and build support for it, then perhaps ask the community to invest in itself (like we did for recycling) to accelerate the process of moving toward sustainability. Such an effort could create jobs, keep money in the local economy, help us transition from fossil fuels to renewables, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and have other positive effects on our environment, economy, and community cohesiveness.

    We’ve also established a set of 10 environmental goals for the City. I’d like to expand on them to cover economy and social equity. A separate committee is in the process of reviewing the indicators for the environmental goals, so we won’t start on the others until after that (assuming that others are interested.) Eventually, those goals would help guide the program (to be administered by a nonprofit, presumably.)

       —Steve Bean    Jul. 22 '08 - 10:54PM    #
  20. As for the agenda, the North Sky project was approved. 42 North was postponed. Zoning changes were postponed.

    The plastic bag decision was also postponed. Personally, I would love a ban on those plastic bags. I find them pretty useless and annoying. They are uncomfortable to hold for any time, they don’t hold much, and they are very flimsy. As David said, if you get plastic bags, they put just about everything in a separate bag because the bags just don’t hold up.

    I suppose they can be helpful for other uses, but because they are not biodegradable, that adds a lot of waste to the landfills. You just can’t convince me that every garbage can needs a liner. I mean, sure it helps in the kitchen, but hardly a necessity for the bathroom or living room. Just buy bags for the kitchen and dump the other containers into them as needed. It doesn’t cost much, you only use what you need, and you don’t end up throwing out a container full of bags full of bags. Any plastic bags we do get, we take to Buy the Pound in South Main Market, and any paper bags we take to the Dairy (they pack their dry ice in them) so they aren’t sitting around the house, but still they start to add up.

    The hardest thing for me was remembering to take a bag when I went shopping—especially when I was just going to pick something up at lunch or after work. I finally found the perfect bag: Baggu bags that I get from Heavenly Metal downtown. They hold way more than one of those little plastic bags, they come in a ton of colors, they are more comfortable to hold than the plastic, and they weigh just two ounces so I can carry them in my bag without weighing it down. We used to carry canvas bags a lot, but they were sort of a pain. The Baggus solved my problem.

    So, why target plastic bags? Because they are something relatively new so we know we can live without them (they weren’t used much until the 80s). They are the worst of all options as far as strength, longevity, value, biodegradability, and so on. Plus, getting rid of them would show that we can make changes as a society toward a more environmental and sustainable living. Sure, they are a symbol, but they are a very visible symbol. Even though they are so light and small, they are a measurable proportion of materials in landfills (something like 3-5%, which is pretty big for one item!). They are one of the top five materials that make up litter on roads and beaches. So getting rid of them actually does matter. And remember, the ban is just the t-shirt style bags from grocery stores. Any sturdy plastic bags that you would get at a clothing store or book store would not be included.

       —Juliew    Jul. 23 '08 - 12:53AM    #
  21. Juliew wrote: “they are a measurable proportion of materials in landfills (something like 3-5%, which is pretty big for one item!”

    I found this so starling as to skept. Source please?

    And poking around a bit, I found reference to a 2003 study by the Industrial Waste Management Board in California found that plastic bags represented .4% [note decimal point] of landfill content. Granted, the reference was in an editorial against a bag ban, which appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

    I’m willing to contemplate the possibility that Michigan landfills are different or that the editors of the LABJ screwed up their decimal. But I’d sure like to follow up on the 3-5% claim.

       —HD    Jul. 23 '08 - 01:33AM    #
  22. HD, I couldn’t find the original site (I think it was someplace in Seattle), but here is a web site from MSU (also with no references or dates so it isn’t much help) that kind of covers it. Their quote from the Garbage Project was “The majority of plastics by volume were plastic film bags such as cleaner, grocery, and garbage bags. Plastics accounted for about 9 to 12 percent of the landfills by volume and about 5 percent by weight.” So that doesn’t really speak to the exact percentage, just that plastic bags in general were a large part of a landfill, which you would expect if garbage bags were part of that.

       —Juliew    Jul. 23 '08 - 02:40AM    #
  23. Here is a source of a claim like that, but it’s badly sourced (I can’t even figure out if the asterisk is meant as a “ sign but there are also footnote numbers that refer to nothing): . I’ve seen very different figures on various websites, with 2% appearing most regularly. However, a consistent claim which I believe is true is that plastic bags “escape” at a high rate, whether from ordinary garbage bins, street containers, or landfills in the process of dumping—hence their accumulation in the sea especially but also in trees and even in thin air, sailing along a thousand feet up for hundreds of miles—so that the relatively small space in landfills isn’t much of a selling point with me.

    One article with some usable links is including the recycling issue.

       —Aki    Jul. 23 '08 - 02:45AM    #
  24. Okay, so here are my two questions:

    1. What is the environmental cost of the following 4 options:
    A. Non-recycled plastic bags
    B. Non-recycled paper bags
    C. recycled plastic bags
    D. recycled paper bags

    2. What are our recycling rates for paper and pastic bags?

    I seem to remember hearing somewhere (Sorry HD, no source for you) that given the low density of plastic bags, they cost more petrolium to recyle than they did to produce. That is, when you fill a truck with plastic bags to recyle, it’s still mostly air, so you’re spending a lot of carbon to ship a heavy trunk that’s full of empty space.

    Related question: If A2 bans plastic bags, how will that impact shopping behaviours? Will shoppers just go to the townships so they can get plastic bags? I doubt it, but it’s worth asking.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jul. 23 '08 - 03:30AM    #
  25. Actually, I live right by the Ypsi border, so I will shop there if A2 bans plastic bags. I find it interesting that Juliew hates plastic bags because “They are uncomfortable to hold for any time, they don’t hold much, and they are very flimsy.” I have the same problems with paper bags. Plus, the handles break off all the time, and if anything in them is damp, the bag tears. And unlike plastic bags, if something spills or is a little sticky in them, I can’t just wash them out and re-use them – I have to throw them away. There’s a reason plastic grocery bags caught on so well since they were introduced – they are simply better for that purpose. Instead of focusing efforts on an outright ban, why not instead focus on teaching people the many ways they can re-use the bags?

       —KEF    Jul. 23 '08 - 04:51AM    #
  26. I find it interesting that Juliew hates plastic bags because “They are uncomfortable to hold for any time, they don’t hold much, and they are very flimsy.” I have the same problems with paper bags.

    KEF, I agree, which is why I try not to use either paper or plastic bags and bring my own reusable bag.

       —Juliew    Jul. 23 '08 - 05:01AM    #
  27. Speaking of reusable bags, this web site argues that paper bags aren’t really any better for the environment than plastic, and are worse in some ways:

    Of course, they sell reusable bags, so this argument works in their favor, but I’ve read it elsewhere too.

       —KEF    Jul. 23 '08 - 05:22AM    #
  28. I don’t think anyone would contest that reusable bags (“green bags”, “bags for life,” which can include durable plastic bags that are sturdy enough to wash and reuse over and over, etc.) are the best option by far. Paper bags have their own costs both in production both in terms of carbon and toxicity, cost in transportation (they’re heavier) and they also stick around for ages if put in landfills. They can be more easily recycled in A2 tho and, with some limits, can be composted. I also find that I get far fewer of them at the store (they hold more)—tho I like cardboard boxes even more for some purposes of packing, stacking, multiple reuses, and easy recycling.

       —Aki    Jul. 23 '08 - 05:43AM    #
  29. I find the series of comments on plastic bags amusing and depressing. Seems like a lot of angst about something that could be solved voluntarily. What is so hard about using a re-usable bag? Get a set of favorites, and leave them where you’ll pick them up when you go to shop. It does take practice. So practice. If you forget a few times, that’s ok, but stick with it. With a re-usable bag, there’s no tearing, no blowing away, and I have yet to hear of a turtle choking on a canvas bag.

    We are at a point at which we should all be looking for ways to reduce our use of resources. Did you hear Al Gore’s challenge this week? Not using plastic bags is so easy. It should be the low-hanging fruit in the reduce-reuse-recycle system.

    An example: In our two-person one-cat household, we elected to get the smallest size, of the oh so modern garbage cans (not recommended by the city, probably because most people throw out a lot of stuff). We fill it monthly at most, and more often it’s curbside every 5-6 weeks. We’re actually saving the city money by not using trash pickup often. We buy in bulk, compost vegetable matter, and most often carry non-grocery purchases from the store without any bag. Our recycling goes out approx. every two weeks. If I dropped the newspaper subscription, it would be even less frequent. Yes, I’m bragging. But anyone could do this.

       —M    Jul. 23 '08 - 08:05AM    #
  30. I think we all (that definitely includes me) need to be careful to not imply that what we may be able to do individually—in our current circumstances, which could change—is possible for everyone. Genuine differences of family needs (including not just size and ages but disabilities and other special needs), locations, budgets, and job patterns do have effects that are not solved by scolding. Sharply reducing the plastic bags is doable—the whole nation of Ireland managed it—and it can lead to greater thoughtfulness about consumption in general alongside addressing a specific important problem. But not everyone can or should meet my personal standard of achievable enviro-virtue, such as it is. I’ve appreciated HD’s and Steve’s attempts to link up the plastic bag issue with more sweeping changes, and I take M’s comment in the same spirit, but would rather not imply that everyone has the same ability to enact every good change at once or perhaps ever. Unless HD is going to install pedal-powered laundry equipment in every single A2 home really soon. (Or possibly even if he is.)

       —Aki    Jul. 23 '08 - 11:09PM    #
  31. Aki,
    Of course everyone’s needs are different. I offered a description of what I do to provide a view for of ways to do things differently. You may criticize me as you wish. Each will find their own level, according to their consumption requirements. Was I chiding? Yes, because I’m still astonished at the level of perceived need for plastic bags among those who comment in this presumably progressive blog. I do not live a plastic bag-free life, but I am pleased with the outcome of the reduction in my use of them. Why would you not look to reducing your use? As I said, reducing use of plastic bags is the low-hanging fruit. Do that and you have a chance to see more clearly what else needs to be done.

       —M    Jul. 23 '08 - 11:59PM    #
  32. “I’m still astonished at the level of perceived need for plastic bags among those who comment in this presumably progressive blog”

    How astonished are you, exactly? And are we reading the same blog? Can you quote someone who said they “needed” those plastic bags?

    Speaking only for myself: the effect on me would be that instead of using the flimsy little plastic grocery bags to throw away my garbage in, I’d probably end up using those way over-sized over-engineered garbage bags. So my net consumption and disposal of plastic bags (measured by mass if not numerical quantity) would increase. Or maybe I can find a source of the flimsy kind.

    But really, I don’t care.


       —Bruce Fields    Jul. 24 '08 - 02:41AM    #
  33. “As I said, reducing use of plastic bags is the low-hanging fruit. Do that and you have a chance to see more clearly what else needs to be done.”

    This is EXACTLY what I don’t get. What’s the logical connection between reducing plastic bag use and being able to the ‘else’ more clearly? I’m an enthusiastic user of plastic bags, yet I think I see the ‘else’ pretty clear.

    I’ve outlined in comments above an entire campaign to focus on the ‘else’ that relies crucially on the availability of plastic grocery bags.

    That campaign is also crucially premised on the development of a sense of community around the goal of increasing the ratio of person/garbage. And once you have a lot of people coming somewhere near the target of 1 plastic grocery bag of garbage per week per person, you might see people going M one better and returning their big blue bins to the City because they’re sharing space with a neighbor … or two. [I tried pioneering a Blue Bin Buddy program on my block, with limited success. Which is why I’m not at all pleased with the outcome of my reduction in waste production. Community-building is not something everyone can do.]

    So, M, you seem to be presenting the reduction of plastic bag usage as the equivalent of the first step in a 12-step program: admit you have a problem. Or the equivalent of accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior in the process of becoming a born-again as a Christian. I just don’t see how reduction of plastic bag usage is the ‘key’ to anything else.

    But you’re right, M, about plastic bags being low-hanging fruit—it’s low-hanging political fruit. And the danger in going after low-hanging political fruit is that sometimes it’s hanging so low that you have to look down to see it. And once it’s gone … politicians rarely ever look up again. They say, Oh, it’s all gone! Hooray, there’s nothing more that can be done!


    If the goal is to inspire people to use fewer plastic grocery bags by switching to permanent re-usables, surely to god we can come up with something more creative than banning plastic grocery bags.

    Just to be clear, at the end of this, canvas bags and their users come out ahead.

    But. Consider for a (long) moment what sucks about canvas bags—from a bagger’s point of view. Having worked a grocery store front end as recently as 2002, here’s what I can tell you. Nothing sucks worse that the sanctimonious prick who plops a tangled wad of canvas onto your conveyer and expects you to pack their stuff into it. Compared to the efficiency of a wire-frame loaded with plastic bags, a bunch of limp canvas bags just take way longer to pack. Plus, sometimes there’s unidentified spooge on them. Ew.

    Now, who does that piss off? (Besides me, the bagger, whose feelings here don’t actually matter.) It pisses off the people in line behind, who are standing there with their carts full of stuff, rolling their eyes at the douche bag with the canvas bags. Yep, you guys with the canvas bags are pretty well hated, you knew that, right? [Just as an aside, Aki, the specter you raised in an earlier comment about people holding up the line to shuck extra packaging from their purchases … OMG, how was it that violence did not ensue??]

    Here’s the rub: the people behind the canvas bag user feel virtuous when it comes their turn because they aren’t holding up the line like that last asshole with the canvas bags.

    So what we need is a checkout system that does not reward plastic bag users with feelings of virtue, and does not cause canvas bag users to hold up the line for non-canvas bag users, and that rewards the canvas bag users with something more lucrative than $.05 a bag.

    What’s more lucrative than $.05? Better service.

    So what grocery stores need to be convinced to do is to introduce Canvas-Only Lines. They would get bagging priority: two baggers per line, say, even if that left the ‘regular’ lines unstaffed by a bagger. Hey, you want to use plastic bags, knock yourself out, you gotta bag your own order, though, you plastic-loving bastard. The bag credit for canvas could be applied automatically by the register based on the cost of the order, making that aspect more efficient and saving the canvas bag user even more time.

    People are already used to the idea of special lines for people who meet certain conditions (e.g., Express Lanes) so this notion of Canvas Only lines is an extension of a familiar concept. I think it could work, and I’d sooner see us give that a try before just banning plastic grocery bags.

    Because the last thing I want to see is Bruce Fields using Hefty’s Twist-o-flex Cinch-sacks doped with anti-bacterial Forest Scent.

       —HD    Jul. 24 '08 - 04:03AM    #
  34. OK, I’m recovering from my shock at being addressed as the voice of Needing Plastic Bags and being told to Consider Reducing My Use (reading comprehension: UR doin’ it rong, M). And returning to remind HD that we disagree, which is more interesting.

    A campaign to eliminate free plastic bags need not be a campaign to eliminate all plastic bags. The system set up in some actually existing places still allows for at-register purchases of bags just like or very similar to those you get free. The choice is not free T-shirt bags or pricey extra large twist-o-flex cinch-sacks with steel ribs and piney fragrance. It can be annoying T-shirt bags you have to pay for, even a dime; better quality and more reusable bags you also have to pay for—say a quarter but can reuse a lot more and for things other than garbage, like groceries; paper bags that could be free but might just be discounted; or no bags.

    Actually existing places however seem not to be of much interest here when utopias and dystopias are so much more fun to imagine.

    HD: “I just don’t see how reduction of plastic bag usage is the ‘key’ to anything else.” Well, it’s the key to fewer dead sea turtles at least, and to specific problems causes specifically by this specific form of pollution. About the existence of which you are preserving a studious silence. And I do think it can lead on the part of consumers, if not of politicians, to more attention to wasteful packaging in general.

    I do like your idea of bag-your-own lines (canvas, hemp, reused plastic, I don’t care) and especially because I don’t like solutions (as I said) that put the pressure on front-line employees to deal with issues caused by corporate policies that go far beyond individual stores or even chains, even in the short-term, as was done in Britain as a shock tactic. But I’d still rather actually charge people for bags as a tax than to have the discount, at least on the basis of my experience that the former works and the latter has had little effect so far.

       —Aki    Jul. 24 '08 - 04:40AM    #
  35. I still say it makes no sense to single out plastic bags when paper bags are just as bad environmentally. If the argument is that the ban is to protect the environment, then if one is going to be banned, both should. Only banning plastic bags is just politicians trying to get brownie points.

       —KEF    Jul. 24 '08 - 05:29AM    #
  36. KEF: “paper bags are just as bad environmentally”—-source and reasoning please? Are you talking landfills? transportation? production cost? materials? ease and cost of recycling? number produced to meet needs? enviro effects when neither landfilled nor recycled? The math is in fact complicated but you are not specifying yours.

    And again, despite Rapundalo’s muddying of the waters: no longer allowing them [where “them” could be both plastic and paper bags] to be free does not necessarily mean ending their existence altogether.

       —Aki    Jul. 24 '08 - 05:41AM    #
  37. Have you considered that having a bag from the store may be used by store security as a marker for an item that has been through the cashier, and presumable paid for? I’ve tried several times to purchase items without ANY subsequent bagging, reusable or otherwise, and have gotten mixed responses, with the smaller businesses being more amenable to me taking something that I bought (hence mine) out in my own two hands. The larger chains are somewhat hit or miss (I’m looking at you, Target).

    I also agree with HD’s point about the relative inefficiency of using customer provided reusable bags for purchases that will require multiple bags. Keep the line moving please.

       —jcp2    Jul. 24 '08 - 07:26AM    #
  38. So many words. A tempest in a (choose your material) bag.
    Of all the comments, it is good to see concerns and sensitivity for those with disabilities and those who work on the front lines.

    Otherwise, have fun thinking big thoughts y’all.

    Don’t forget that decisions with multi-million dollar implications were also on the agenda this week. They may deserve your attention more than this one, which could be managed voluntarily, as you all wish, with your choice of bag. Perhaps plastic bags were a diversion from areas where serious attention is needed.

       —M    Jul. 24 '08 - 07:34AM    #
  39. Let’s not allow HD to distract us from the achievable goal of banning plastic bags by trying to transform that idea into a discussion of solving all environmental problems.

       —David Cahill    Jul. 24 '08 - 04:33PM    #
  40. Someone who gets outsmarted by Kroger baggers on a regular basis wrote: “Let’s not allow HD to distract us from the achievable goal of banning plastic bags by trying to transform that idea into a discussion of solving all environmental problems.”

    I have not advanced a discussion of solving all environmental problems.

    Rather I have advanced a specific proposal to build and rally a community around the achievable goal of reducing the typical Ann Arborite’s garbage production to a single plastic grocery bag per week. And that proposal depends on the continued availability of plastic bags.

    Not everyone will manage to hit that target. But some, like M, will probably manage to go close to zero and balance things out.

    A specific plan to reduce solid waste in our community is hardly “all environmental problems”.

       —HD    Jul. 24 '08 - 05:34PM    #
  41. HD, you’re being ridiculously obtuse. Why would we want to attack an actual problem in a way that requires effort and sacrifice from us when we can make grand and self-important gestures that will do no good but will inconvenience other people and more especially will put the screws to million dollar a year corporate villains like those evil fuckers who run the White Market.

    How you’ve managed to live here all this time without learning the “Ann Arbor Way” is beyond me.

    Personally, I had Bill Y_______ dig me a six foot deep, forty foot long trench in my backyard while he was working on my neighbor’s basement. I throw all my trash in there and back fill it a little at a time.

       —Parking Structure Dude!    Jul. 24 '08 - 06:35PM    #
  42. My husband’s aunt had a way of tearing up the plastic bags and then knitting stuff with them. Does anyone know how to do that? Unfortunately, the secret died with Aunt Florence . . .

       —Joan Lowenstein    Jul. 24 '08 - 09:23PM    #
  43. If you google “knitting plastic bags”, stuff comes up and the first couple of sites I saw do seem to have detailed instructions. Can’t say if they actually work for all projects, as I very definitely do not knit, but they do have some examples. Braiding them then sewing them into “rag” rugs is also out there and I’ve seen that in Europe for things like outdoor mats.

       —Aki    Jul. 24 '08 - 10:36PM    #
  44. A while back I read a Wired Magazine article that compared the environmental impact of, for example, re-usable travel mugs vs single-serving mugs. Their conclusion: you have to buy a lot of coffee in you your re-usable mug to pay off the higher environmental costs of producing, shipping, and washing it. I wonder how the math really looks for re-usable bags.

    Second, I’m a big proponent of having laws to either mandate or create incentives for change. The Cuyahoga river doesn’t burn anymore, and that’s because of laws—consciousness raising and community building alone won’t do it.

    That said, I tend to prefer incentive systems to mandates. Rather than banning plastic bags, I’d rather see a bag fee or tax with the proceeds going to environmental projects. That way a store or customer could say “rather than paying a quarter per bag, I’ll just bring my own.” (okay, bad example, this would be very hard to implement and very easy to circumvent).

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jul. 28 '08 - 04:37AM    #
  45. That said, I tend to prefer incentive systems to mandates. Rather than banning plastic bags, I’d rather see a bag fee or tax …

    Yeah, but no — you’re still doing overly detailed ‘soft’ mandates. Instead, just price in the externalities and don’t focus on the specific, symbolic item. Out of the thousands of things we all do and products we all use, what good reason is there for zeroing in on plastic grocery bags?!?

    If the use of oil to produce bags is expensive, that is certainly already priced in (but, of course, it is likely that the oil in your bags is a small fraction of the oil in the gas used to drive to the store—which is why bags are cheap).

    And the landfill space should be priced in. But of course it isn’t because the city would rather do some trendy, symbolic, feel-good act, than something that would actually have a meaningful impact on waste — namely charging for waste disposal by weight/volume rather than handing out a one-size-fits-all curb cart and emptying it every week ‘for free’.

       —mw    Jul. 28 '08 - 06:30AM    #
  46. As has been repeatedly said, there are specific problems with plastic bags which go beyond the fact that they’re one plastic item among many (the fact that they’re so abundant, fragile, and, in practice, unrecyclable makes them a particularly good example of overuse of plastic but that is NOT the only or main problem). But there appears to be no interest whatsoever here in dealing with that—instead, we get repeated assertions that this can only be a trivial feel-good symbolic gesture, no matter what all those people in Bangladesh, Ireland, South Africa, India, Australia, and elsewhere seem to think they know about specific forms of pollution and their specific environmental effects of dead birds and other animals, and clogged drainage systems and rivers. But maybe in Michigan we’re exempt from all that. It’s magic!

    Chuck W., the kind of system you suggest—-call it incentives or mandates, whatever, but in the end no free bags—has worked well in numerous places. Despite the bad-faith claims above that the only bags left available will be overpriced super-giant-size hefties, this is what a “ban” on free plastic bags means. In many places, this has meant an absolute decline in bag use altogether, since paper bags are not common, but in the US, a fee on paper bags would also be desirable if only to get us out of the sterile insistence that paper is just as bad or worse—which even if true if you do the math in some ways and not in others is mostly working as an excuse for doing nothing whatsoever.

       —Aki    Jul. 28 '08 - 04:58PM    #
  47. Aki asked how someone could possibly use as many bags as they bring home.

    We may be bringing home different amounts of bags since most of my dry staples come from the co-op or come by the 20lb bag at the Chinese store.

    But I wonder if a major difference is that I live in an apartment? If I want my kitchen trash out of my kitchen before it rots, I must bag it and take it to the dumpster, there is no large trashcan with a commercial bag where I could collect a week’s worth. IIRC the city requires trash to be bagged. So, several times a week, a grocery bag leaves my apartment carrying kitchen trash. I grew up in a household that composted all kitchen waste, so I am not sure how it’s done in ‘normal’ single family houses. I’m assuming that people typically have a large can that they line with a commercial, steel-belted, pine-scented, plastic bag, which they store outside or in the garage or something? So in that case, they have the option of lining their kitchen waste container or not, because it will eventually go into the large container which is lined?

    In my case it ends up being almost an equal flow of bags in and out.

    Besides the small economic issue of having to buy bags for my kitchen trash if they are not given out by the grocery stores, I really value plastic bags for groceries because I sometimes have to walk with groceries in the rain or rest the bags on damp ground when I wait for the bus. I’d hate to ruin food. In my experience, carrying frozen food an a paper sack is a disaster. Those sturdy paper bags with the handles are not as good as they look. I got off a bus carrying a full sack of groceries in the handled bag from Bush’s, topped off by a carton of eggs. Somehow, just as I stepped off the bus, the handles ripped off the bag, and everything flew out, including the eggs. It was probably pretty funny, for onlookers.

    What would you do when you buy something in an awkward box? Now department stores will put the box into a bag with a handle. I’m thinking we would all carry a system of straps and buckles to make a handle?

       —S.    Jul. 29 '08 - 04:17PM    #
  48. Today marks an occasion on which we can put aside our differences about paper versus plastic versus canvas bags … and check out the St. Vincent de Paul Bag Sale

       —HD    Aug. 8 '08 - 06:21PM    #
  49. For what it’s worth, I put together a collection of municipalities with proposed, enacted, or rejected bag bans to help me sort through some of this.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Aug. 9 '08 - 04:30AM    #