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The Plastic Debate

altPart one in a four part series looking at the discourse surrounding the plastic bag bans

Most Americans have stood in line at a grocery store at least once in their lifetime. Their week’s food or evening’s dinner sits on the conveyer belt and the grocery store clerk asks that famous question: “paper or plastic?” But this question, which once was spoken in any store in any given city, is now changing due to the push from many environmental groups and activists to ban single-use plastic bags.

The plastic bag debate has been a hot topic since the 2007 ban in San Francisco. After San Francisco legislation implemented a ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarket chains, as well as large pharmacies, Oakland followed, and then Santa Monica, Palo Alto, Long Beach, and San Jose. Santa Cruz County was among several other jurisdictions in California to adopt a single-use plastic bag ban this year. Passed by the Board of Supervisors in September, the local law holds the title of the strictest plastic and paper bag law in California. In addition to banning plastic bags at grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores, it implemented a fee for paper bags.

It is estimated that more than 100 billion petroleum-based plastic single-use bags are used each year in the United States, and that American businesses spend about $4 billion per year purchasing them for their customers. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the plastic industry is vigorously fighting back against the anti-plastic movement. As a graduate student at San Francisco State University studying discourse that fuels social movements, I am taking the plastic bag debate a step further. For my final paper for my graduate seminar Communication and Social Criticism, I have written a rhetorical analysis that focuses on both sides of the plastic debate. I am looking at rhetorical strategies from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Society of Plastic Industry (SPI), Save the Bay, and The Surfrider Foundation in their arguments surrounding a ban on single-use plastic bags.

In this linguistic examination I discuss how plastic corporations are responding to the efforts of environmental groups and anti-plastic activists across the State of California to create a world without single-use plastic bags. I look at the arguments from both sides of the debate, analyzing their rhetoric and how they use images, slogans, and facts to persuade the public as to which side of the debate they should side with. By looking at the plastic industry’s discourse we can see how this multi-billion dollar industry is responding to the movement.

In my next three blog entries I will share my findings from this rhetorical analysis. By looking through a critical lens I will be able to examine how persuasion can be used successfully in order to construct arguments and counter-arguments. The ways in which we communicate affect our perception of the natural world and by critically analyzing the dialogue used by each side we, as community members, can gain a new insight into this present-day debate.


Jamie Foster is a second year graduate student in communication studies at San Francisco State University, where she is currently studying the discourse used within the plastic bag debate and how each side—plastic corporations and environmental groups—construct their arguments. Good Times will be host to four blogs by Jamie about this subject. If you would like to see a complete version of her paper or have any questions please email her at [email protected]

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