Plastic bags: to ban or not to ban

One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.
~Douglas MacArthur

Plastic bag bans and taxes seem to be a reoccurring topic here at the Ouroboros, so it’s time to address it.

First let me say that tracking down decent statistics on plastic bags is difficult. And by “difficult,” I mean it’s like trying to win a game of Scrabble armed with only Q, X, and Z tiles. I have quoted some numbers, but even those have vague sources, so do not take them as gospel truth.

The Plastic Bag Tax in Ireland
In 2002 Ireland started taxing plastic bags. From the numbers given, the number of plastic bags dropped from an estimated 1.2 billion to 85 million. Since then, the number has increased to 113 million in 2005. Unfortunately, I can’t find more current numbers, nor can I find an official source listed other than the rather ambiguous “Irish government.” An even more ambiguous source, “an Irish newspaper,” says than an unspecified food retailer reports an increase of 77% in plastic trash bag sales.

Plastic Bags in America
While I hate plastic tumbleweeds as much as the next person, I’m not really convinced that we have a problem with plastic bags in America. More often than not, I see them stashed away somewhere to be reused. I still see people getting far too many, yes, and it’s all too easy for even someone as adamant as myself to accumulate a small horde of them. I hold no doubts that a significant portion of plastic bags produced in the US end up in landfills. (Other countries, from what I’ve read, have a much bigger problem with plastic bag litter and have attempted bans in order to decrease it. However, good information is lacking.) So aside from the more general problem of excess (something America has in spades) there isn’t really a specific problem with plastic grocery bags.

Why Not Ban/Tax Plastic Bags?
For one, I’m pretty damn sure that if the statistic about Ireland’s increase in trash bags isn’t correct, it’s at least pointing out something we need to pay attention to. Since trash bags are bigger, they can hold more trash, but they’re also thicker. The question is…which results in a net loss in plastic consumption? Fewer bigger, thicker bags, or more smaller, thinner bags? I’m not sure.

The jury’s still out on whether or not paper bags are better for the environment. I do know that they are more difficult to recycle and reuse. Or just plain use, for that matter.

Also, the reusable totes that are sold for almost nothing at the grocery store? For one, those are made in China…well, at least most of the ones I’ve seen are. Sure, some of them are made from 80% recycled plastic, but how long are they going to last? My canvas tote could whup some serious ass in that contest. And just how many are bought and not used? That’s a lot of plastic being wasted. And while they’re made from recycled material, last time I checked my local recycling center did not accept them. Like just about anything else, reusable totes are cool…so long as they’re sturdy and actually used.

Finally, there’s the ever-present, unavoidable, and ugly specter of Public Opinion. This guy seems pretty hacked off about DC’s tax. And face it, this is America. Or at least, I’m writing this in America, those of you elsewhere will just have to pretend. There’s a strong polarization of opinion when it comes to environmental issues. People are either green, or god forbid you mention a spotted owl. It doesn’t matter what happens…the moment a certain portion of the population feels that the government is giving preferential treatment to the environment, they get pissy. At all of it. Ban plastic bags, and they’ll be bringing that up the next time you try to get them to save a baby seal or turn off their lights when not in use. Stupid? Yes. But all too true. People in this country don’t like being told what they can and cannot do, and that includes me. You can whine and scream about it all you (and I) want to, but them’s the facts.

So What Do We Do?
Don’t tax or ban plastic bags. Instead, offer a rebate for not using bags. So instead of penalizing, reward. If it’s high enough, it may encourage less plastic bag use while not pissing off much of the South (and that one guy in DC). Where’s the money coming from? Hell if I know. Maybe we could legalize marijuana or something and tax it. Be creative. Will it be as effective? Fuck no. Charging people for something will deter them much more effectively than rewarding them. But rewarding them will result in much higher satisfaction overall.

Also, quit buying those crappy, cheap-ass totes. Get something sturdier and only as many as you will actually use.

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3 Responses to “Plastic bags: to ban or not to ban”

  1. Portland stores have offered five to ten cents back for each reusable bag for years, and yet for the most part people still want paper or plastic. Some of it’s forgetfulness, but most isn’t. And with the economy doing its thing, many stores are either lowering or dropping their rebates. So there’d have to be some sort of government intervention for the funds, and they’d need to be more substantial.

    As to the woven plastic bags, they actually hold up pretty well. I have some that I’ve used a while, and I have secondhand ones that have been through a lot and are still intact.

    • *nods* That’s the biggest problem right there…the refund would have to be more than just .05 or .10, and funding it would necessary.

      One of mine is plastic. So far it’s done fine for light grocery duty, although it almost ripped once when I tried to haul a large rock in it. I love my canvas bag more, though. Good to know they hold up.

  2. simpleinfrance Says:

    Some stores in France make you buy your own (re-usable) plastic bag if you don’t come with one to the register. This means that I’m now trained to remember to bring my reusables with me when I go shopping. That said, there is a rather obnoxious rule that your garbage must be in a bag when you toss it in the bin sooooooo what are we to buy plastic trashbags but not use them in supermarkets. Duh!

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