Posted by: bkivey | 5 August 2010

Bag It

There is a movement afoot in the city of Portland to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags. Portland mayor Sam Adams has been vocal in his support of  this legislation, touting it as “. . . a smart, pragmatic approach to a real and seemingly insurmountable problem.” (1)  Mayor Adams has made this crusade one of his signature efforts, which may seem rather picayune for someone responsible for a city of nearly 600,000 people. It takes no great degree of skepticism to suspect that, like most politicians, Mr. Adams is looking for something, anything, that he can point to as a success, no matter how low the bar may be set.

There has been increasing opposition to the use of what opponents call ‘single-use’ plastic bags and not without justification. They litter the land, pose a threat to wildlife and ecosystems, and they take a long time to degrade. Estimates are that plastic bags take on the order of 1000 years to biodegrade, which is a long time, but far short of the ‘forever’ that activists claim. Obviously, we haven’t been able to test this under field conditions.

Plastic grocery bags were introduced in 1977 because they were cheaper to manufacture than the traditional paper grocery bag and were touted as a way to save trees. That’s right. The very same people who want to get rid of plastic bags were all for them back in the day because they were seen as environmentally friendly, at least to those hugging trees. This attitude persists today, albeit in a more cynical form.

A growing number of jurisdictions have levied taxes on plastic bags, with Ireland in 2002 the first country to do so. A number of U.S. municipalities have enacted plastic bag bans and California will likely become the first state to impose a blanket ban. Oregon isn’t far behind. In all the reading I’ve done on the issue there seem to be some points that activists are either not mentioning or are of which they are willfully ignorant.

Levying a fee on plastic and paper bags is a tax, plain and simple. Nine states require a supermajority passage in the Legislature for any tax increase while eight more require a supermajority with restrictions. California and Oregon are two of the states with an unrestricted supermajority requirement for all tax increases. I’d be willing to bet that if challenged the State will say that the levy is a ‘fee’ rather than a tax, but it’ll be interesting to see how a state government can charge a fee for a product or service not provided by the state.

An additional complication comes from the fact that the great majority of plastic bags come from grocery stores, so the levy is effectively a tax on food, a commodity that is usually exempt from other taxes, such as sales and use. If you live in a community that levies a charge for plastic and paper bags, then city government has increased your tax and grocery bill in one fell swoop. One could, of course, buy a reusable bag, but there are complications with that approach.

For all the promised reduction in plastic bag use that activists (baggers?) tout they all use gross numbers rather than net. Many people use their so-called ‘single-use’ bags more than once. The most commonly cited post-business use is to collect dog poop and as trash can liners. I am one that uses my grocery bags as trash can liners and I also use them to wrap and store meat in meal-sized portions, so I can freeze it and then thaw only what I need. Plastic bags also come in handy to cover dishes of leftovers instead of using plastic film or aluminum foil. And then there are the myriad uses for camping and general around the house handiness. I sometimes have to grab extra bags at the checkout because I’ve run low at home.

The point is that people repurpose plastic bags in a number of ways that in their absence they would have to buy alternative products. If I did not have access to plastic grocery bags I would have to buy trash bags (also made of plastic, and no better for the environment), plastic film (ditto), and more aluminum foil (there is something about using and disposing of a metal for one-time use that really bothers me). So I either pay a tax or spend even more money on items to do the jobs the bags did. It’s cheaper to pay for the bags, which defeats the purpose of the tax. Unless, of course, the purpose of the tax is to forcefully divert more private resources into pet projects.

While activists point to reductions in the use of plastic grocery bags as a result of levies, I haven’t seen any evidence that they have tracked sales and use of the products that the bags were replacing, like trash bags, plastic film,and aluminum foil, and the concomitant landfill space those products use. If the goal of reducing plastic bag use is to reduce environmental impact, then the methodology for quantifying that metric is pretty slipshod.

I suspect that the bag controversy is not so much about the bags themselves as yet another manifestation of the immaturity of people who can’t be bothered to actually find a workable solution as throw a tantrum so people will pay attention to them while they act out their teenage angst. My suspicion has been bolstered by the kerfuffle over biodegradable plastic. Here is a solution that, while not perfect, seems to be better than the status quo. Yet it’s still not good enough for the anti-plastic crowd. It seems that they are bothered by the fact that biodegradable plastic doesn’t degrade as fast as they would like and when it does, it releases methane. Well, duh. When organic material degrades, methane is what you get. And in a delicious bit of irony, EPA, that darling of the environmentalist, does it’s best to make sure that biodegradation doesn’t occur in landfills, precisely to avoid the  production of methane.

I think that we need an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic bag that is as handy to use and cheap enough to manufacture at a profit. I think that biodegradable plastic is a step in the right direction, and with a little imagination could become a supplemental power source. I think that rather than looking at plastic bag use as a problem to be legislated that the underlying motives of people for using them are looked at in the light of turning that behavior with suitable tools (like biodegradable plastic) into a resource. Unlike some vocal individuals I know that change takes time. So I say to them and all the other tantrum-throwing children: bag it.

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