Legislative plastic bag study utilized industry research, finds fee effective

By: - July 1, 2020 3:48 pm

A state-funded analysis on single-use plastic bag bans requested by a powerful state Senator quoted an industry-sponsored expert and cited research funded by a bag manufacturer in the lawmaker’s own backyard.

But the report still concluded that a fee on single-use bags would save consumers $82 million a year while taking nearly 2 million bags out of circulation.

The research was requested by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, who mandated it at the last minute in the 2019 state budget.

The findings were used as cause for a year long ban on municipalities banning or placing a fee on single use plastic bags. The ban was set to expire on July 1, but was extended for at least another year as part of a temporary budget passed late last month.

Corman’s central Pennsylvania district includes Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer that employs 160 people in Milesburg, Centre County.

With the ban in place, the two research groups were tasked with looking at the economic and environment effects of such policies. The Independent Fiscal Office tackled the former, and the Legislative Budget and Policy Committee took up the latter.

Both reports were released Tuesday, and cite a 2014 Clemson University study conducted by Robert Kimmel, a researcher at the university’s Center for Flexible Packaging.

The study was underwritten by Hilex Poly, while the Center is a collaboration between Clemson and private businesses who pay $30,000 a year or more for a membership.

In the study, Kimmel concluded that consumers “should be given a choice between reusable bags and [plastic bags] and that any of these should be preferred over paper bags.”

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“Reusable bags should only be preferred if consumers are educated to use them safely and consistently, and reuse them enough times to lower their relative environmental impacts compared to [plastic] alternatives,” the report says.

The report closes by acknowledging Hilex Poly’s financial support. In an email, Kimmel said he stands behind his research despite the funding.

The company “took a totally hands-off approach toward influencing our work and conclusions in any way,” Kimmel said in an email.

Clemson did not respond to a request for comment.

Kimmel is also quoted in the LBFC report, but not named, saying that plastic bags “make up a very small component … of litter found in storm drains and around retail areas.”

In an email, Stephen Fickes, the lead LBFC analyst on the report, acknowledged the Clemson study’s origins.

“This fact does not discredit the analysis, in part because we took additional procedures to evaluate the work,” Fickes said.

The Independent Fiscal Office also utilized the study in one section to estimate how much the bags could hold. It was one of five studies used.

In a statement, Kathleen Hall, the IFO report’s lead analyst, said the office was aware of the Clemson study’s origins.

“When writing this report, bias in sourcing was an issue we were watching for and tried to look at each parameter from multiple sources to avoid introducing bias into the report,” Hall said in a statement.

In an email, Corman spokesperson Jenn Kocher said that Corman did not tell either office “what research to use or where to look for information.”

Paper or plastic?

In a statement released Wednesday, Corman was quick to use the study to argue that “changes to bag policies would not have the positive environmental impact people want.”

The two reports took “the politics and emotion out of the issue,” Corman said, and cut against the notion that single-use plastic bags are environmentally unsustainable.

Kimmel agreed. His research found that consumers need to reuse a synthetic fiber bag between 20 to 25 times to match the global warming potential from the energy and material used to make a common single use bag. Both are made of plastic.

Consumer studies at the time, Kimmel added, show that shoppers often forget reusable bags. Case studies of local plastic bag policies analyzed by the IFO found significant decreases in plastic bag use.

Environmentally, the LBFC report did not argue against single-use plastic bags as a looming issue. 

According to the United Nations, the world has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950’s. Of that, 60 percent had ended up in a landfill or littering nature. Every year, humanity produces another 300 million tons of new plastic waste.

But in an email, Fickes said that “a simple and clear conclusion that we drew was that an unintended consequence can result in terms of greater environmental impacts from paper bags.”

Kimmel found that paper production, which is water intensive, had a larger global warming impact than plastic bags, which are produced from natural gas.

The finding even cost him with Hilex Poly, Kimmel told the Capital-Star. By the time he was ready to publish, Hilex Poly “had acquired a large paper bag manufacturer.” 

Because his research “concluded that paper bags were substantially more detrimental to the environment than light-weight plastic bags,” the company “was no longer interested in helping us publish our work,” Kimmel told the Capital-Star.

Corman additionally argued that changes to plastic bag policy “will negatively impact our local economies.” 

A close read of the IFO’s economic report reveals that Corman’s blanket assertion is incorrect. 

In its report, the office found that any bans would have a negative financial impact, forcing businesses or consumers to pick up the cost of more expensive paper or heavy duty plastic bags.

But the office concluded that a 10 cent fee on lightweight plastic bags was the most efficient solution, saving the average Pennsylvanian $6.40 a year — $84 million in total — while cutting demand for almost two million single use plastic and paper bags.

A fee, the IFO said, “motivates consumers unwilling to pay the fee to reduce their bag consumption, but retailers are not forced to wholly abandon their lowest cost option.”

Kimmel’s litter claim was also contested in the IFO’s own analysis. 

The LBFC cited a 2019 state report on littering along roadsides and in state streams, claiming that bags “are a small percentage of a larger litter problem in Pennsylvania.”

The 3.5 million bags found on the side of Pennsylvania’s roads represent a seventh of a percent of the half a billion pieces of litter in the commonwealth.

But that study focused on roadside litter, and the IFO posited that litter could look different on city streets than in interstate medians. They cited a 2019 Philadelphia study found that plastic bags were the among the top five most common forms of litter in the city.

An ongoing debate

The fight over plastic bags has been active in Harrisburg since at least 2017.

That year, the General Assembly passed a bill preempting local municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags. All but one Centre County lawmaker voted for the bill, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed it.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has started new arguments in favor of single use plastics as a tool to promote hygiene. The LBFC report cited concerns that disease such as the coronavirus could be spread via an uncleaned reusable bag, a point Kimmel raised with the Capital-Star as well.

According to Politico, plastic lobbyists have made similar arguments to elected officials in the Trump administration.

The concerns were heard. Grocery stores discouraged reusable bags. Philadelphia, one of three Pennsylvania municipalities to regulate plastic bags, announced it would delay implementing the policy in April.

Some scientists have begun to push back, as 100 experts from around the world did last week in an open letter, argued that “based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

Overall, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee’s report, which must be agreed to by the committee’s 12 lawmakers, received little notice. It was presented at the tail end of an hour-long meeting, approved unanimously and without comment.

But the debate likely isn’t going away. The committee’s report included a survey of 1,022 Pennsylvania municipal leaders, asking their opinion on local plastic policies.

The respondents were evenly split on whether a ban or fee would be an effective tool to regulate the environmental harm of plastics.

But more than two-thirds agreed that the solution had to come from Harrisburg, not a local borough or township council.

Fourteen states, including the commonwealth, currently preempt local municipalities from banning plastic bags. Pennsylvania’s temporary preemption policy will last until, at the earliest, July 1, 2021.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.