Friday, September 30, 2011

Plot thickens over proposed bag ban

Chico Bags made overseas, Hilex Poly cites American job losses

Express Staff Writer

Andy Keller, an activist also known as The Bag Monster, shows off his suit of 500 plastic bags, the estimated number an average American shopper uses in a year. Courtesy photo.

Hailey voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether to ban the use of "single-use" plastic bags in the city. Choosing to use reusable fabric bags may seem like a green alternative, but what if those reusable bags have to be shipped from China? Are consumers in the United States capable of disposing of the thin single-use bags in a way that keeps them from flying away in the wind? Will we miss these bags when they are gone?

These are issues at the heart of a debate that stretches across the globe. From England and Italy to Los Angeles and Idaho, plastic bag manufacturers are going head-to-head with citizen activists, including a group of Wood River High School students who first proposed that the city of Hailey institute a plastic bag ban.

Hailey City Attorney Ned Williamson said Hailey's proposed ban, Idaho's first, would not cause legal problems for the city. Williamson helped draft the ordinance, which was welcomed warmly by the Hailey City Council.

Andy Keller (aka The Bag Monster), the owner of reusable-bag distributor Chico Bags, is perhaps the most visible activist in the battle to ban plastic bags. He spoke with the Idaho Mountain Express this week about Hailey's proposed ban. He said the movement to "ban the bag" is speeding up around the world.

"It is obvious to me that the people of Hailey are trying to do something about the unresolved issues around plastic bags," Keller said. "I suspect one of the main issues is litter. I don't blame them for wanting to do something about it."

Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler based in South Carolina with a plant in Jerome, Idaho, contacted the Mountain Express this week to point out that Chico Bags imports its reusable bags from China and Vietnam, and are not made in California, as was erroneously reported in the Mountain Express last week.

"Hilex's manufacturing is U.S.-based, employing 1,250 Americans. Our bags are 100 percent recyclable, and we operate the largest bag-to-bag recycling facility in the U.S., turning old bags into new bags. Our plant in Jerome uses recycled content to produce new bags as well," wrote Philip R. Rozenski, Hilex Poly director of marketing and sustainability.

Keller's company was sued earlier this year by Hilex Poly for allegedly causing "irreparable harm" to its business by posting information that criticizes the plastic bag industry.

Keller claims the bags become litter and cause harm to marine life and other environments. Hilex claims that litter is a people problem. The two parties reached a settlement two weeks ago, but Keller maintains that plastic bags are a scourge and that using reusable bags at least 11 times will reduce a shopper's carbon footprint, causing less greenhouse emissions than using plastic bags.

Perhaps a more important point to consider is the issue of plastic litter stemming from the ubiquitous plastic bags. Hilex Poly has stated that 12 percent of single-use bags are recycled. Keller says the number is closer to 1 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated that in 2005, 5.2 percent of plastic bags were recycled.

Hilex Poly maintains that recycling plastic bags is the solution and that reusable bags are causing a new waste problem all their own.

The battle of the bags has become a public relations war, with conflicting statistics that have led to litigation. Municipalities in California have been sued over proposed plastic bag bans.

"The facts are simple: banning or taxing plastic bags doesn't reduce litter in our landfills or improve the environment," reads a Hilex Poly website following the settlement.

Keller said in an interview that Hilex's claim that marine environments are not harmed by plastic bags is "simply untrue."

"I hope the employees of Hilex Poly in Jerome, Idaho, urge their management to stop attacking reusable bags, stop the lawsuits and instead improve their business by owning and acknowledging the environmental issues, and working with the local community to address these concerns," he said. "If Hilex Poly stays on their current track, it will only result in more of what they are trying to avoid."

A news release posted by the makers of "Just Bag It," a documentary about the plastic bag public-relations battle, stated that U.S. shoppers used 102 billion plastic bags in 2009, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

"Just Bag It" will be shown tonight at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey at 7 p.m.

Tony Evans:

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