American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group for plastic bag manufacturers, has been actively opposing a movement to discourage the use of plastic bags. When citizens in Belfast publicized their effort to "ban the bag," the chairman of the group wanted a chance to weigh in.

That should not come as a surprise.

The group's claims that disposable polyethylene bags are better for the environment than common alternatives have been borne out in communities that have tried to ban them and confirmed by groups with no stake in selling plastic.

"These are feelgood policies that make the community think, 'Aw, we did something about litter and marine debris,'" Philip Rozenski, policy chairman for the group, said. "No you didn't. You got rid of a product."

Rozenski, who is also senior director of sustainability at Novolex, a producer of plastic and paper bags, said bag ordinances enacted by many municipalities — and recently by the state of California, where citizens approved ballot measure this month requiring a fee for disposable bags — play to people's emotions and desire to do something good for the environment, often using incorrect information.

In practice, he said, the laws often give rise to alternatives that are worse for the environment.

Bag ordinances typically target the thin polyethylene bags commonly used at grocery stores. While some laws include provisions about paper bags or other types of plastic bags, often those are promoted as the more sustainable alternatives to the single-use plastic bags.

But thicker plastic bags require more plastic, and paper bags are larger and heavier, which means greater shipping expenses. And as waste products, neither are benign.

Heavyweight reusable bags sold at grocery stores and emblazoned with friendly environmental messages take more raw material and energy to manufacture. While single-use bags are widely produced in the United States, reusable bags often draw on cheap labor from overseas manufacturers in China, Vietnam and other far flung locales.

American Progressive Bag Alliance has not stood idly by. The group backed an alternative to Proposition 67, the California initiative that instituted a fee for disposable bags there. Rozenski's company, Novolex, owns the web domain banthebag.com and uses the site to oppose ban-the-bag ordinances.

Behind the spin, science suggests that plastic bags are neither the problem nor the solution.

All manufactured products have a life cycle that includes transportation, raw materials, labor and disposal. Each step potentially contributes to the total environmental impact. A 2011 life cycle assessment by the U.K. Environment Agency on bags made from plastic, paper, compostable plastic, and cotton found that most bags take a similar amount of energy to make, with cotton among the most energy intensive and holding the highest bar for reuse — 173 uses — while plastic bags predictably had more of a lingering impact as waste.

Yale Scientific magazine presented the findings as a conundrum. Plastic bags were generally worse for aquatic life, but paper bags, which promoted algae growth and were found to be more toxic to humans and other land animals, were worse for terrestrial life. Biodegradable bags were often worse in practice than their non-biodegradable counterparts. The choice of bag amounted to a vote of concern for one area or another with no perfect solution.

"Which factors are most important?" the magazine article summarized. "Is global warming or resource consumption a greater problem? Do we emphasize the safety of the biosphere, or our own physical health?"

Natural water bodies have been the focus of Ban the Bag in Belfast, the citizen group advocating for a single-use bag ordinance here. Members are concerned that bags are finding their way into Penobscot Bay where they ultimately degrade, pollute the waters and harm marine life. The City Council is expected to consider the proposal in January.

Representatives say 600 million single-use plastic bags are consumed in Maine every year, of which just 5 percent are recycled.

Rozenski, who contacted The Republican Journal after learning of the local initiative, was quick to point out that statistics can't be taken at face value. He cited a U.S. International Trade Commission figure of 101 billion bags sold in the U.S., as of the most recent statistics available five years ago.

"It's an interesting number because it's big," Rozenski said. "But people don't understand what it means."

Tallies of bags don't necessarily reflect the total amount of material in play, he said, because bags vary widely in size and thickness of material. Towns that ban thin bags risk ending up with the same number of thick ones, which could mean more plastic waste. Reusable bags are often made of plastic, and there's no guarantee they will reused enough to give a benefit over single-use bags.

"It's an environmental shell game," Rozenski said. "And all they do is hurt businesses and communities."

Communities that have considered bag ordinances but declined don't get the press of those that enact bans and fees, he said. But while they pass on banning bags, many opt to improve recycling or otherwise encourage people to change how they use and dispose of products, he said.

Sarah Lakeman, sustainable Maine project director for Natural Resources Council of Maine, acknowledged other municipalities have made missteps. Austin, Texas, enacted an ordinance that didn't define a "reusable bag" and accidentally caused a proliferation of thicker plastic bags, she said.

In Maine, where seven towns have enacted bag ordinances and six more are considering them, there have been no known issues, she said, but also no reliable measure.

"It's not required in any of these ordinances, what stores are using before and after," she said, adding that information would be helpful to know.

Lakeman has been advising Ban the Bag in Belfast and the Natural Resources Council provided the group with a $500 seed grant. She encourages municipalities to include paper bags in ordinances because of the adverse environmental effects and the temptation to see them as ecologically friendly.

While bag ordinances may not be perfect, Lakeman believes they are worthwhile because they introduce the idea of reusing things that have been previously considered disposable. In this way, an ordinance aimed at plastic bags could nudge the collective consciousness toward reusing a wide range of other things.

"Having a less-wasteful lifestyle is a good message to send," she said.

Rozenski also supports the goal of reducing waste and similarly puts the responsibility on consumers. But he doesn't see bag ordinances as a flawed step in the right direction. In terms of the real goal, he said, they have been an "absolute failure."