New Orleans is emerging from the throwaway era as residents sign up for curbside recycling -- implemented last year -- and direct their Carnival beads to new uses. Cities in other states have gone a step further, banning plastic grocery bags and even paper ones because of resources used in their production, along with the litter they generate, the cost of their disposal and threats to fish and wildlife. Plastic bags are banned in parts of the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. In March, Austin, Texas voted to outlaw single-use plastic and paper bags at stores.
The New Orleans City Council hasn't considered restrictions on grocery bags yet. And Louisiana's parishes could be slow to regulate plastic and paper bags since the state produces oil, natural gas and petrochemicals -- feedstocks for plastic -- and engages in pulp and paper making.
After grocers nationwide adopted plastic bags 40 years ago, shoppers have reused them for garbage and their pets, stashed them in cupboards or immediately tossed them in the trash. Here in Sportsman's Paradise, they've been left behind at picnics and at beach and boat outings. They can clog storm drains. Unless they're recycled or sent to landfill, plastic bags slowly degrade outdoors, often reaching the ocean and interfering with life there.
So how are local stores and shoppers dealing with grocery bags today? "Paper versus plastic used to be the big question, but in recent years plastic has become the new normal," said Allison Rouse, managing partner and third generation grocer at Rouses Enterprises LLC. "We still have some people who prefer paper and request it, but plastic is by far the bag most commonly used."
Some customers, however, have adopted reusable bags, Rouse said, adding "they're environmentally friendly, they reduce waste and mean fewer bags to carry." Rouses, with 38 stores in south Louisiana and Mississippi, introduced reusable bags on Earth Day in April 2008. The company's big collapsible, canvas bags sells for 99 cents.
In 2008, the Whole Foods Market chain phased plastic bags out of its stores.
At Robert Fresh Market -- with four stores in Greater New Orleans -- operations director Drew Le Blanc said "we primarily use plastic bags because of the low cost to us -- about 1.5 cents" apiece. That may be more than some other grocers pay because of custom print on the chain's bags. "We have some customers who ask for paper bags -- costing us 9 cents," he said. "They provide better balance in the trunk of a car."
Le Blanc said, "In the last two years, we've seen a tremendous increase in the use of cloth or recycled-material bags. Most stores, including ours, sell them. The markup on the bags isn't much. They save us on the cost of buying grocery bags, and we brand them in a form of advertising."
At Breaux Mart, Jay Breaux said reusable bags have caught on in several of the company's five stores in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. "We sell recycling bags below cost and give them away on occasions. We have bins in the front of our stores for people who want to return plastic bags for recycling."
Breaux said plastic bags are cheaper than paper but cashiers double them for heavy items. And shoppers want items separated in different plastic bags so they don't cross-contaminate. He said customers who prefer recyclable bags can use nylon ones for produce. "You just ball them up and put them in your pocket before heading to the store," he said.
Liz Davey, environmental affairs director at Tulane University, said she's been pleasantly surprised at how many customers use recycling bags when she shops for groceries in Mid City in New Orleans.
But that's still only a fraction of local consumers. And in the meantime, plastic bags remain a problem for the state's air, streams, lakes and Gulf waters.
"Fish mistake plastic for jellyfish or other organisms and consume it," said Chris Macaluso, coastal outreach coordinator with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. "Plastic has no nutritive value and it harms a fish's digestive system." He said plastic doesn't break down quickly and people need to be mindful of bags going into storm drains, canals and downstream.
Plastic tends to degrade more slowly in water than on land. In the cold, dark ocean, it gradually breaks into tiny pieces called micro-plastics. "Fish and birds think those plastic pieces with the sun reflecting off them are plankton and other food," said Andres Harris, solid waste and recycling manager at Louisiana State University's Baton Rouge campus. He said "we eat that fish."
Andres said plastic bags blow around and end up in our waterways. "In the Pacific Ocean, there's a a huge zone where currents meet, plastics collect and fish eat plastic particles." That area, 1,000 miles west of California, is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Northern Pacific Gyre.
In Louisiana's Gulf, the hypoxia or low-dissolved oxygen zone is mainly blamed on nitrogen from fertilizers flowing down the Mississippi River.
What happens to plastic bags in landfills? At River Birch Inc. in Gretna, technical director Victor Culpepper said "plastic bags are problematic for landfills because they become airborne quickly. We use litter fences and have crews pick them up after they blow around." At day's end, the bags, along with everything else, are covered with clay.
Culpepper said bags decompose at varying speeds, depending on what they're made of and where they are. They start to photo-degrade outdoors when exposed to the sun.. He said "we don't open the landfill to look inside so I'm not sure how long they take to degrade there."
But even biodegradable and compostable plastic bags and paper bags take a long time to break down in landfill, where there's little oxygen, compared with someone's backyard, LSU's Harris said.
One reason that low-income countries with growing populations ban plastic bags is that they can't afford to keep building landfills and recycling facilities. And governments in low-lying Asian nations want to keep plastic bags from clogging storm drains during rainy seasons.
Plastic and paper bags are both villains but in different ways. Paper bag manufacturing consumes three times as much energy and nearly twenty times as much fresh water, according to a 2007 study by Boustead Consulting & Associates in Pennsylvania. Since most paper comes from tree pulp, paper bag production requires huge resources from forests -- which absorb greenhouse gases. Paper bags are heavier to transport and store than plastic.
But for their part, plastic bags consume large amounts of crude oil and natural gas and usually take longer to biodegrade. Manufacturing of paper and plastics produces greenhouse gases, but paper produces more.
A number of cities and counties in California, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Texas and Alaska, along with Washington, D.C., and East Coast municipalities have banned plastic grocery and other retail bags. In some jurisdictions grocers don't provide free paper bags either. They charge anywhere from 5 to 20 cents for single-use paper bags, and sell cloth bags and recyclable produce bags.
New Orleans' curbside recycling program, now almost a year old, includes plastic bags. Liz Davey of Tulane said "the city's curbside program was well thought out. For instance, they chose the large household bins because most garbage is recyclable." She encourages more residents to sign up for the program and said "trucks are passing through blocks that may have two houses in the program now." City residents can register at www.nola.gov.
Fewer households than expected signed up for curbside recycling last year, according to the city's ResultsNOLA report for fourth quarter 2011. Ryan Berni, press secretary to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said last week that "38,048 addresses are registered for recycling, which represents 31 percent of eligible households serviced by Richards and Metro Disposal."
Meanwhile, local universities are trying to raise awareness about plastic bags. "At Tulane, we have recycled bag promotions and for instance give them out on the university's shopping shuttle," Davey said.
LSU encourages students to return unused plastic bags to stores. In another initiative, "we change plastic bags in office waste baskets less frequently than we did," Harris at LSU said. "But in the short term it will be hard to replace our big, plastic bags for garbage. The compostable ones cost more and the state is trying to hold costs down."
According to the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, which wants to reduce litter, a plastic bag takes ten to twenty years to biodegrade, paper takes two to five months and an orange peel decomposes in six months. Macaluso of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation said he's not sure a ban on plastic bags is needed but believes people must change their habits and stop littering.
Shoppers concerned about plastic bags can BYOB, or bring their own bags to the grocery store, can reuse plastic -- like the wrap around toilet paper and paper towels -- for garbage, and can use old newspapers for pets.
This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the March 26, 2012 issue.