Ban the bags, Portland

Leslie Carlson

San Francisco's done it. So has Whole Foods. Heck, the entire nation of China's done it. Seattle's thinking about it.

Using 'em causes "persistent environmental pollution," which is a fancy way of saying that toxins stay around long enough to end up in our water, our fish and yes, in our bodies. Blech.

So let's do it--let's ban plastic bags for once and for all.

I know they'll be people out there who will cry about the negative effects on business. But consider this silver lining: in San Francisco, banning plastic could actually be creating local jobs, as small, independent bagmaking companies stepped up to provide the reusable kind. And, the SF ban only applies to bags made from oil, leaving open the possibility of a new kind of bags made of biodegradable stuff. I call that a business opportunity for some smart scientist-turned-entrepreneur.

After all, what is plastic but oil turned solid? China's banning of the bags will save them 37 million barrels of oil every year. We could consider banning plastic bags part of the road to energy independence.

And no, I don't want people to use more paper bags. Let's put a deposit on paper, or give shoppers a real discount for bringing their reusable bags to the store. Something that people will notice enough--how about a discount of 50 cents per reusable bag?

For those of you still not convinced, remember that McDonald's didn't go out of business when Portland banned styrofoam in 1990. In fact, McDonald's stopped using styrofoam themselves a few years later, making our city look positively leading edge.

Let's do it, Portland. Ban the bags.

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    right on, Leslie. whenever i go places that still use styrofoam, it seems so odd to me. the world did not stop turning, people were still able to but take-out food and a little bit less of a nasty & unnecessary substance was removed from our city.

    at some point, "convenience" is going to have to become a dirty word. so much of our waste and eco-destruction is based on what makes life easier for us. how stupid is that? we destroy the planet so that we can have more junk, more junk food, bigger cars, etc? until we, as a society, decide convenience is a destructive force, we'll keep insisting on our plastic bags, our freeways and everything else that makes life easier while less tenable.

    grrr. Monday morning semi-rant.

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    In the last year, there's been a number of similar campaigns in the UK, with several municipalities banning plastic bags. I think part of the success had to do with some very effective campaigns, including dramatic video. It would be well worth investigating.

    I am seeing more and more people, even at Fred Meyer and Safeway, who are bringing their own shopping bags, but it's certainly not enough of us to have a real impact yet. Of course, it should be a state-wide ban, not just in Portland, but it has to start somewhere.

  • Jeremy Rogers (unverified)

    Right on Leslie. I totally agree.

  • RichW (unverified)

    Why stop at grocery bags? It seems to me that this is just a tip of the iceberg. Every evening in countless Portland offices, thousand of plastic bags lining office wastebaskets are disposed into the trash stream. A vast majority of them are non-biodegradable, petroleum-based products. Likewise many households also use trashbag liners for their garbage. I believe these uses have far greater impact on our enviriomnent. Focusing only on grocery plastic is like blaming clear-cuts on toothpick production.

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    Hey Leslie, I'm with you, my only concern is our friends without cars, long bus commutes carrying groceries for their families. Do we give out cloth bags for free? Paper doesn't hold up to that kind of abuse.

    I know .99 isn't a lot to many folks, but when every penny counts, free is better. I bought all two of my bags with a coupon - buy one get one - and I won the third in an office giveaway.

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    Right. It's hard when you're having to live in a very limited amount of funds for groceries (maybe in the form of food stamps) to buy the reusable bags. Paper is often not an option since you may need to carry multiple bags at once for long periods of time - the paper bags with handles can never seem to manage it.

    I've purchased several reusable bags and plan on getting a few more. The problem I have is remembering to put them back in the car and to take them in the store.

  • Larry McD (unverified)

    As long ago as 2003 the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh banned the bags and instituted fines of up to $2000 and 7 years in jail for using (not simply discarding) plastic bags. That's India!

    We were in Maui recently and were appalled at the profligate use of plastic in paradise... apparently it has to do with the fact that container shipping is based on volume rather than weight so you can get a whole lot more plastic than paper bags in a given space. Nobody seems to consider the cost of disposal... only purchase.

    Since we don't have that excuse in Portland, I suggest that we simply ban the plastic bags by January 2010 and work out a system by which people who can't afford to buy cloth bags can leave a redeemable deposit at the market.

    Anyway, Leslie, you get major props for stirring the conversational pot.

  • JenS (unverified)

    I understand about families who are counting pennies having a hard time affording reusable bags. I was at Costco the other day and was able to pick up 3 reusable, recyclabe shopping bags for under $4 total. I really like mine and so far have used them for laundry, beach items and groceries, they are pretty durable and the price is very fair. Im a single mom living on a low income wage but I thought the $4 was worth every penny.

  • TR (unverified)

    How many reusable bags does it take to have the capacity for a shopping cart piled high with groceries? When shopping at the discount grocers as opposed to shopping at the higher priced and elitist boutique type grocery stores, it is very common to see a family with one or sometimes two carts full of groceries. Therefore, the answer to the how many reusable bags question would indubitably require a third cart be used just to carry the reusable bags.

    Moreover, to suggest that a small manufacturer of reusable bags will create jobs is pure rhetoric. Like just about everything else these days, the bags would probably be manufactured and come from overseas. Any new jobs created must also be weighed with the jobs lost making and distributing the bags that are currently used. Any proposal to charge for bags is the typical green response that is fueling today’s recession and adding to the spiraling inflation that along with our-of-control taxes, is increasing the cost of living. And what about tourists or that spontaneous or unplanned stop at the store while out and about or combining trips? In addition, plastic bags are only a small portion of overall plastic packaging designed to keep products fresh, dry or clean. Many people reuse the plastic bags either through their businesses or at home. Therefore, unless or until there is a biodegradable replacement product available at a similar cost for retailers and packagers, any mandate to ban plastic bags is taking away a freedom of choice that can only be viewed as an over-zealous eco-socialist dictatorial proposal being aired and supported by an egotistical self-chosen few that does not belong in a democratic society.

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    Therefore, the answer to the how many reusable bags question would indubitably require a third cart be used just to carry the reusable bags.

    It doesn't take too many bags. Many of the reusable bags can carry more than the plastic bags, so you can fit a lot more items into each bag. I had a large cart filled with items and got everything into around 8 bags or so. The bags fold up and take up very little room. You could probably fit two dozen of 'em in the seat part of a cart without problem.

    I don't think a deposit on the bags for those who are low income is a good idea. For every few bags they'd have to pay a deposit on they could be buying a food item instead. Having lived on food stamps myself, I know how hard it is to make them last a month as it is - every single penny really did matter. Maybe some sort of coupons that come with your WIC benefits and in the mail from the food stamp office that allow you to exchange them for the reusable bags? Maybe some companies could donate a bunch to the Oregon Food Bank so they could give them to the people who come in - they could use it to take their food home that day, and they'd have them for future visits to the store.

    But this also means that places like Wal-Mart, Target, etc. need to get some larger reusable bags. At Christmastime (and many other times of the year) they have oversized bags that you can't see through - perfect for carrying gifts you don't want your kids to see. They need to come out with some bags that are big enough for that. The only ones I've found big enough thus far are the Costco and IKEA ones. I've picked up two of the IKEA ones to use for my larger purchases (like clothes and toys at Target).

  • ws (unverified)

    When I shop for groceries, I almost never have a need to carry more than would fit in one of those carry-baskets some stores, such as Fred Meyer still have. As it turns out, I have one of my own that I requisitioned, a generic one, abandoned on the street in downtown Portland. The store where I shop for groceries, Winco in Beaverton, used to have hundred's of their own labeled baskets for customer use. Now they don't.

    Where did they go? The story I received from several employees, is that customers took all of them home and didn't return them. Very likely then, across the metro area in peoples, garages, workshops, and spare rooms, holding all manner of domestic clutter, there are probably hundreds of grocery carry-baskets with Winco's name on them, just waiting to be brought out of hiding and used for their intended purpose. that you've taken them, use those baskets to shop with and then at least some of the volume of plastic bags used could thus be easily reduced.

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    Fred Meyer apparently is actively promoting the use of reusable cloth bags & is advertising a substantial cut in # of plastics used.

    RichW has a point, & one which goes beyond plastic bags, even. There has been a remarkable expansion of packaging layers in my lifetime, along with the explosion of "individual portion" packaging, partly for the sake of higher unit prices I suppose. The one that really gets me this month is the advertisement of individually wrapped dried prunes.

    TR on the other hand has some very weird ideas. Want to look for sources of fuel inflation and related rises in costs of imported & long-distance shipped foods? Try our illegal aggression against Iraq & the destabilization of the Middle East it has caused.

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    I don't want us to become San Francisco. We have a mandate and a tax for every problem, and seemingly have failed to learn the lessons of the last quarter century of public policy: Market incentives work far more efficiently and effectively than mandates.

    If we don't like big corporations that don't provide health care, let's incentivize provisions of health care. It's worked in Chicago and it works in Maryland. In Portland, we're left with empty lots around town because we think big boxes are evil.

    We don't like polluters? We tried to regulate pollution in the 1970s and it was a big failure. We incentivized the system in the late 1980s and by all measure, it's been a huge success. It is the precursor to carbon credits that are much the rage today.

    We don't like fossil fuels? Rather than mandating a certain percent of corn based ethanol (a mandate which increasingly looks like a tremendous error and is causing world wide distortions in food prices) you tax gasoline and encourage producers to develop economically competitive alternatives.

    Same with plastic bags. You don't like people using plastic bags? Then charge them for the privilege. If you make consumers pay 5-10 cents per bag, they'll switch to reusable cloth very quickly.

  • Miles (unverified)

    I agree with Paul G. on this one. Better to charge people for the plastic bags rather than ban them. Another option is to require retailers to assume paper (instead of plastic) and only switch if asked. Fred Meyer does the exact opposite -- they assume you want plastic (it's far less expensive for them) and you have to ask for paper.

    And no, I don't want people to use more paper bags.

    Whether you want to or not, banning plastic bags will result in dramatically higher use of paper bags. That's a guaranteed outcome of a ban. So are paper bags better for the environment? I always assumed that they are because 1) they're biodegradable and 2) they're from a renewable resource. But it's possible they're not given the overall impact on the forests, the energy needed to make and transport them, etc. Anyone have data?

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    Your argument is oversimple. Actually the past quarter century has also taught us that there are problems that markets are inherently bad at solving. Universal healthcare is one of those, and in fact universal anything, because markets work in part by principles of exclusion.

    Also, markets work toward profit-efficiency. Their efficiency to any other end is secondary to that primary efficiency. Sometimes we need to seek direct efficiency to other ends (healthcare again, public education, police & fire services, arguably though more complexly public utilities and public transport).

    Profit-efficiency aims make markets inherently mixed bags (so to speak :->) on environmental issues. In the Fred Meyer example, their encouragement of reuseable bags probably results from a combined calculus of good will for "green" action, and shifting the costs of consumer food transport to consumers (i.e. reducing their own costs for bags). At the same time Freddie's collaborates in the processes of elaborating and multiplying plastic packaging for marketing purposes by primary distributors.

    You also mention indiscriminately at least two and possibly more means for public policy to harness market processes. When it comes to plastic bags, you advocate a (regressive) charge to consumers for the bags, not quite clear if a tax or a private charge by the retailer. A different kind of incentive would be to put a tax on wholesale sales of the plastic bags to retailers, proceeds to go to some combination of recycling and subsidies for reusable bags for consumers, especially lower income ones. It could even be structured so that the retailers would be relieved of the tax for providing free or very cheap reusables to their customers.

    Yet on carbon emissions you appear to favor a cap & trade credits system, rather than a carbon tax, but there are serious arguments that the latter would be a stronger incentive -- I have heard at least one public utility CEO say that a tax would have a greater effect, which is why most of his counterparts favor cap & trade. There is an honest debate here. But "credits" systems are not good in themselves. A great deal depends on their design. As Bush administration policy shows, if you set your target goals low and in the far distance, they can be highly ineffective.

    Regulations can also create market incentives in a different way. A great proportion of environmental problems are caused by prices of consumer goods not reflecting their true costs, particularly costs relating to their disposal and mitigation of effects of environmentally destructive disposal. Market actors are permitted to externalize those costs onto the environmental commons, many of which in the longer run come back to the human health commonweal and economic commonwealth.

    Germany has taken the regulatory approach of saying that makers or perhaps primary sellers of consumer durable goods must take them back at the end of their useful lives and dispose of them within certain tolerances of environmental effects. In other words, they have regulated against the ability of market actors to externalize the costs they create onto the commons.

    Within that framework it is left up to the companies how to achieve that disposal to minimize those costs. This has led in some instances to re-use and recycling, and in others to redesign of the products in the first place, in materials and form, to use less, use less toxic materials, use more biodegradable materials and so on.

    This kind of regulatory approach of course is perfectly compatible with other kinds of incentives you mention.

    And that is what I'm really complaining about in your post. You are repeating the deeply false Reaganite truism that markets are always good and efficient and government and regulation is always bad and inefficient.

    It simply isn't true.

    (Ask Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz -- married to a Reed alum, btw -- and other recanted former promoters of the "Washington consensus" for neoliberal economic policies internationally.)

    Ultimately that's because capitalist markets themselves are created by government regulations. States create the legal forms, responsibilities and liabilities of economic institutions (businesses, and also institutions like stock markets, commodity exchanges and so on, or reserve banks).

    States also create the conditions of markets areas such as the enforcement of contracts (and prevention of some contracts, e.g. self-enslavement), punishment of fraud etc. So one of the places we need to look in public policy at ways to harness markets is at the level in which the state creates the institutions and conditions of the markets themselves, particularly in the area of preventing the externalization of costs onto the environmental commons.

    No state = no market (or at least, no capitalist market). There is no such thing as a purely free market.

    Oh, and property is theft, but you knew that ;->. Proudhon rules! Well, perhaps not ... but he was onto a partial truth bearing on how we allow, regulate or forbid the appropriation of nature from its common condition into exclusive private capitalist property, which historically is a relatively recent phenomenon.

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    Miles, I don't have the data, but I recall that 10 or 15 years ago some serious environmentalists thought it was something like a wash, especially if the plastics were recycled -- which was why those barrels started appearing at Freddie's and Safeway and so one, to forestall anti-plastic regulation.

    It's not just a matter of the energy needed to make and transport them (transport of the actual bags isn't likely to be different for paper or plastic, is it?). It also involves the pollution effects of production in both instances. Paper-making is not an environmentally benign process, even with recycled paper, but involves noxious chemicals. In Portland we used to be reminded of that more frequently than today before a number of paper mills in the area shut down, but you can still catch the odd day colored by that inimitable smell of masses of dirty socks being boiled in a sulphur solution floating down from Longview.

    It is my impression that the balance of environmentalist opinion has shifted back against plastics, largely due to their permanence. But I don't have data. Also, it would be interesting to know how the rising cost of petroleum plays into this discussion, because plastics in addition to using energy in production, transport etc. also consume petroleum directly.

    I have heard that one of the "new materials" areas of sustainable technology development is to look again to cellulose rather than petroleum for packaging (remember cellophane?) -- paper bags are wood modified wood cellulose, of course. The sustainability aspect of this I've heard most cited is biodegradability -- not sure how it looks in terms of underlying raw materials & environmental effects of production processes. I suppose cellulose for packaging could also come into competition with some of the "better" (i.e. not food competing) bio-fuels people are working on. But plastics compete with petroleum for fuel too.

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    Can you make your name more decriptive, please? We already have a Jenny Simonis and a Jennifer Sargent commenting regularly here. People might think JenS is one of us, and vice versa.

    Oh, the pain of having a name that was #1 in popularity for 20 years straight...

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    A great proportion of environmental problems are caused by prices of consumer goods not reflecting their true costs, particularly costs relating to their disposal and mitigation of effects of environmentally destructive disposal. Market actors are permitted to externalize those costs onto the environmental commons, many of which in the longer run come back to the human health commonweal and economic commonwealth.

    Thank you, Chris. I think that the concept of externalized costs is missed completely by most of us and only vaguely understood by most of the rest. Unlike a lot of economics concepts, it's easy to understand but just not widely enough discussed.

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    Useful correction: markets CAN work better than mandates.

    And yes, I am with you on market failure in health care. The consensus on pollution tax credits, however, is solid and across the board--they have been far more effective in reducing plant emissions than regulations, which were widely evaded in the 70s and early 80s.

    The question is in what other areas market incentives can result in better and more efficient achievement of social goals. Is health care an extreme example or is it emblematic of many other examples? My sense is that there are unique characteristics of the way we "shop" for health care that makes it more unique.

    I honestly don't care if market incentives is a Reagan era slogan. My question is whether it works. The public goods economists that I know say in many areas that it does. Like Sen. Obama has said, not everything from the Reagan era was a bad idea.

    It took me about 5 seconds to find an interview with Sachs where he promotes a combination of government efforts, philanthropy, and market incentives as a way to attack poverty.

    Stiglitz similarly doesn't reject incentives, he says that they don't work in some situations, particularly when one or more players have monopoly control. He thinks this is particularly applicable in the global market.

    We can debate whether this applies or not to plastic bags--but I think we can certainly debate the point, not immediately jump to the regulatory solution.

    Finally, on regressivity, any solution that increases the cost of basic foodstuffs is going to be regressive, whether it be a tax on bags levied for the producer or the consumer, or a ban that requires stores to supply more expensive paper bags.

  • eco-socialist dictator (unverified)

    TR said: "...any mandate to ban plastic bags is taking away a freedom of choice that can only be viewed as an over-zealous eco-socialist dictatorial proposal being aired and supported by an egotistical self-chosen few that does not belong in a democratic society."

    Funnier than Bill O'Reilly.

  • Jen S-Jonas aka JenS (unverified)

    Sorry about the name. You think that was common the S was for Smith, lol!

    Anyways, a couple notes in regards to green bags. I went shopping at Safeway today and received a 'green' coupon book. In this book is a coupon for a free 'green shopping bag' if u spend $50; now $50 is alot for some people so I asked. Yes this promotion is available to anyone using foodstamps and the offer is good until 5/26/08.

    Also someone mentioned the increased use of paper bags, a couple from Australia was telling me at their store they offer boxes to customers that dont bring their own bags, just like Costco does, reusing their own cardboard from their freight.

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    If you read what I wrote, it was not at all against all incentives. It was rejecting the anti-regulation mantra. I'm not only for regulations. But sometimes I am. And incentives, of which there are many varieties, have to be considered in their regulatory context, of which some sort always exists.

    I agree with what you say about cap & trade and sulphur dioxide emissions. But there are serious arguments about how generalizable that model is. A carbon tax would be an incentive too, just a different sort. My views on a carbon cap & trade system will depend very largely on how low (or high) the initial cap is, and how steep and fast (or shallow and slow) the curve for lowering the cap is. One of the problems with cap & trade is that it is susceptible to the argument being made at the level of the type of incentive, without going into the specific content, leaving it highly vulnerable to special interest lobbying interests. And despite Obama's claims, he very much has ties to energy lobbyists. So I worry. But by the same token, a carbon tax is vulnerable to lobbying-based loopholes, as many previous tax examples show.

    My point about Sachs, Stiglitz and others is not that they reject incentives or market mechanisms entirely. Of course not. My point is that once upon a time they were hard-core market only or as near as you can get true believers, who saw their theory trashed by reality (I vividly remember being in Swaziland in 1989 and reading in Time international ed. about how Gorbachev's late Soviet economy was collapsing or had collapsed, and then a decade later about how much more completely the post-Soviet Russian economy had collapsed under the ministrations of Sachs & colleagues before the scales fell from his eyes). So now they look to mixed methods, as do I, and, if I read you correctly, I think you. Which mix, and what applied to which specifics, will always be a matter of debate.

    Actually Sachs came to my mind because I had heard him on the radio talking about new technology adoption on a global scale in response to climate change. What he said pro-markets was quite interesting -- that they were very good in promoting new technology adoption once they had been proven and the groundwork for their profitablity had been laid. But not at getting matters to that point.

    I have a somewhat less case-by-case view about which problems are amenable to market mechanisms and which not than you seem to. There are some rule-of-thumb kinds of principles or patterns that can be deduced from observation.

    As I said, if you want something to be universally available on a relatively egalitarian basis, like say fire suppression to protect lives and property, i.e. if you want high efficiency at delivering the good to trump narrow cost-efficiency in those trade-offs, it either needs to be on a non-market basis, or have a strong regulatory foundation before bringing markets into play. That's because markets ration by excluding people based on willingness to pay, which often derives from ability to pay.

    Ron Wyden's healthcare plan is a "strong regulatory foundation plus markets" kind of plan. It does have a little market play, but strongly restricts insurer ability to compete by offering healthcare inefficient plans at lower costs, or by cherry-picking low-cost clients or excluding persons or conditions from coverage in nearly all cases. I happen to believe a public provision of healthcare access would be even more efficient, but Wyden's plan could reach practical universality I think, because it is strongly regulated, provided we're willing to subsidize certain inefficiencies relating to administration and profits in order to satisfy our fetish about the word "private." Or the fetish of some persons too powerful to be overcome, according to those who reckon themselves political realists, anyway.

    Really anything involving life or death choices shouldn't be left primarily to markets, because at the end of the day the market will ration by exclusion to the point of killing people. (Of course overpowerful states kill people too in other ways).

    But our main problem today after three decades of Reagan-Clintonism is not propensity to overregulate. Nearly all of our recent economic crises are the result of under-regulation, of market ideology carried too far (the .com bubble being an exception I think).

    Our main problem is ideological commitment to markets as an always first preference, turned into a fetish, even in clear cases of failure, such as healthcare, and willingness to accept much worse results than necessary in order to preserve the market fetish.

    Direct government regulation or provision shouldn't always be the first choice. But neither should markets always be the first choice. Knee-jerk always throwing markets at problems makes no more sense than knee-jerk throwing money or government programs at them.

    Dominant ideology says markets are always more efficient. That just isn't true. It's not your arguments about doing what works that bother me. It's the Reagan-era style of asserting that we should always favor markets over government (or non-profit private actors). My Reagan comment was about an overstrong ideological predisposition in the culture to "market solutions," even when they actually don't work, or are less efficient, or there is reason from other experience to think they might not work. And we shouldn't always wait for markets to fail before turning to something else. We know enough to reason from past experience in both directions, at least in many instances.

  • Alan Locklear (unverified)

    Just wanted to put in a word for the durability of the humble paper grocery bag.

    I use my own canvas bags (both purchased and received as gifts/premiums) for most of my shopping and have since I bought my first ones from Puget Consumers Co-op in 1981, shortly before moving to Portland. Well-made canvas bags are so durable that it's difficult to wear them out. Those bags from 1981 are still presentable and usable.

    That said, our old friend, the brown kraft paper grocery bag, is durable enough for numerous reuses if treated gently. I recall a newspaper article about 15 years ago about a retired papermill worker who re-used his grocery bags and put a mark on the top edge for each reuse. He proudly pointed to bags which had over 50 reuses!

    And, when doubled (one bag inside another), the potential number of reuses becomes huge (single bags tear more often than wear out, doubled ones are much less likely to tear).

    By the way, those "studies" which purported to show that plastic and paper had roughly equal environmental problems always assumed a single use for each bag! As we know, a great many, if not most, people who still get their groceries and other purchases in plastic or paper bags, find a wide variety of reuses for those bags.

    Paper and plastic bags have long been used for trash bags, plastic bags are excellent for wrapping wet garbage (for those who don't compost), paper bags serve well for children's craft projects and toys for kittens. And who doesn't keep some grocery bags around the house to carry food to a potluck, lunch to the office, miscellaneous small items to Goodwill, ad infinitum? My personal experience is that large paper grocery bags have many more potential reuses than plastic ones. They're less likely to tear than the plastic ones, too.

    Kraft paper bags are also biodegradable and compostable when they're worn out. They are the same material as corrugated cardboard and can be recycled along with cardboard in curbside recycling.

    Plastic bags don't biodegrade in a meaningful time frame, but they do break down into smaller and smaller particles when exposed to the elements and wind up being ingested by everything from microorganisms to birds and fish. Plastic bags are still not recyclable curbside. Plastic bags are also a blight on the urban and rural landscape as they blow around, hang up on fences and trees, and plug up drains.

    Most local food stores offer a small incentive (3 or 5 cents per bag) to shoppers who bring their own bags, whether they're reusing a paper grocery bag, a canvas bag, or one of the new polyester bags being touted by Fred Meyer and other outlets. Certainly a slightly larger incentive would entice more shoppers to use their own bags.

    And, full disclosure, I have no connection whatsoever with the paper industry.

  • calmnsense (unverified)

    In the UK, leading retailer is about to take the "free market" approach and start charging 5 pence a bag, starting in May. For now, they are giving away reusable "shoppers" bags. We'll see how it works, but the model is clearly the tax-based approach of Ireland.

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