Complaints I’ve heard about the plastic bag ordinance can be lumped into these categories: Inconvenience, taxation, and no perceived litter problem. I’d like to address each.
Inconvenience: Yes, for little while. Shoppers would have to remember to bring bags from home, and remember to take them from their cars. How long did it take us to remember our purses/backpacks/hats and gloves, before it became routine? The point is, we condition ourselves to remember. It’s a simple case of learned behavior. Cashiers and baggers would have to adjust to packing various configurations of bags. Again, learned behavior – it may be a nuisance for a while – but would eventually be accepted as The Way Things Are.
Taxation: If you don’t bring a bag you’d pay a twenty five cent tax. This rankles many since they used to get them “free.” I put free in quotes as I can assure you they are not. The cost is passed on in the price of the merchandise. If grocery stores didn’t have to purchase bags, wouldn’t it stand to reason they could lower prices? Maybe focus those cost cuts on dairy, fruits and vegetables? Wouldn’t lower prices on healthy foods be welcome in tough economic times? Some people testified that a bag tax would be unfair to the economically disadvantaged. For sure, people feeling the pinch don’t need extra charges. But I’m sure nonprofit groups in town would get together and bulk order reusable bags to distribute – at or below cost – to those who really can’t afford them. Finding a bag at a thrift store or simply reusing the plastic bags as long as they lasted, are also low budget alternatives. Cardboard boxes are a good option, as cardboard is far more economical to recycle than plastic, and biodegrades. (Safeway offers new “free” cardboard boxes, but could save money by reusing the boxes they currently recycle, then reducing prices on healthy foods even more, right? )
The no-litter myth: A few have claimed they don’t see the bags as a litter problem. This is hardly worth commenting on as nothing could be further from the truth. I work as a custodian for Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and am a daily pedestrian. I pick those bags up all the time as I police the grounds or walk to work. Just because you can’t see any from your vehicle doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Also, the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program has found that plastic bags represent 10 percent of the plastic debris washed up on US coastlines. That’s serious litter.
I see the plastic shopping bag issue as the poster child of problems created by our consumptive culture. Besides disposal concerns and the threat they pose to wildlife, production contributes to global warming. We have to cut CO2 drastically, and banning plastic bags is one small painless way to do it. The maximum safe upper limit of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million, and is now at 387. In the Jan. 28 online issue of the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, a report states that even if we stopped venting CO2 now, the effects of global warming will likely be irreversible for at least a thousand years. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, but it does mean the higher the CO2 level gets, the worse the long term effects will be. There is no time to delay – we have to change our harmful habits or face an increasingly dangerous future.
Americans changed quickly and willingly during WWII to support a war effort against clear enemies. Gas and food were rationed, thrift was seen as virtuous, and victory gardens grown. As the evidence and effects of global warming continue to build, we must unite as those during WWII did, and confront a common threat. But the battle is a bit different this time, and Walt Kelly’s comic strip character “Pogo” said it best: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Dan Thorington has been a resident of Homer since 2001, and currently works as the custodian for Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
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