Better Than a Ban: Small Fee on Plastic Shopping Bags Creates Incentives for Conserving

May 21, 2009

Paper or plastic?

That decades-old question at the grocery checkout counter is often answered these days with a "Neither. I brought my own."

That's because customers, especially at niche stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, are opting - after having been strongly encouraged to do so - to bring their own bags in which to carry groceries home.

That's a good sign, but it still represents just a fraction of California shoppers. Most people still rely on retailers to provide the ubiquitous and cheap plastic bags that are so numerous that they have become a major source of pollution. The proliferation of these bags has driven legislators — including those in Los Angeles — to propose bans on bags.

But a ban is the last resort to change destructive behavior. It's better to come up with incentives for people to limit plastic bag use. And Ikea has already shown it can work.

Once again the Swedish home-furnishing empire has pioneered its own practical solution to one of life's perplexing dilemmas - and it's affordable to boot. The retailer charges a small fee for each plastic bag consumers use (they get to decide how many to use and pay for). Shoppers can also purchase one of the company's iconic blue, supersized, crinkly plastic bags.

And that's why a proposal in the California Assembly to place a 25-cent fee on each plastic — and even paper — grocery bag provided by retailers makes more sense than an outright ban.

In the past, consumers probably didn't think about where those plastic and paper bags come from, or where they go after one use. They didn't have to - the bags come with the purchase and then are tossed out.

That was before anyone thought about recycling, or waste streams made more gigantic by excessive packaging, or carbon footprints, or deforestation, or the petroleum that goes into plastic sacks — and where that petroleum might come from.

It was way before marine biologists and investigative journalists began to plumb the awful depths of the debris field twice the size of Texas that floats in the mid-Pacific Ocean, 90 percent of its content being plastic.

That massive dump kills hundreds of thousands of sea birds alone each year. Its effect on sea mammals is still being studied, but rest assured it is not good. And it is our fault. All of ours. And this debris field continues to grow, even as a few begin to make better consumer choices.

While many people take the time to re-use or recycle plastic bags, too many people leave bags in the streets and parks, rivers and sidewalks, where they get washed out to the ocean.

Few people think about where the bags go until they take a dive under a wave at Zuma Beach and hit a gross, slimy, flimsy plastic bag.

We know that lobbying groups for the bag and retailing industries want us to wait until recycling efforts work better; for higher requirements on the amount of recycled materials in bags; or for, maybe, consumers to stop being litterbugs. No more waiting.

The plastic-bag ban that cities such as San Francisco, Palo Alto and Manhattan Beach have instituted isn't the way to fix that. A fee is better than a ban. And it works. Consumers will think twice about plastic bags in the trash if they have to pay a quarter a piece.

Assemblywomen Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, and Assemblyman Mike Davis, D-Los Angeles, have competing bills that probably will be merged. A number of responsible retailers are in support because, like us, they think a bag charge is better than a bag ban.