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Can plastic bag charges generate change?

 Posted by on November 13, 2008
Nov 132008

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

By now, most people are familiar with the ubiquitous bright green (and blue and pink) totes that supermarkets are touting to replace hard-to-recycle plastic bags.
Many customers dutifully carry them to and from grocery shopping each week, often receiving 3 to 4 cents in return. But what about those folks who are less conscientious?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has a solution: charge shoppers six cents for each plastic bag they use. The mayor’s proposal is a work in progress, but environmental groups are pleased.

Isabelle Silverman, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, says it’s a great way to prod people to remember to bring their cloth bags. “In Switzerland,” she says, “customers are charged 30 cents per (plastic) bag and bag use has been cut down enormously.”

In Ireland, the same thing happened. After charging shoppers 22 cents a bag in 2003, the country saw a 94 percent reduction of plastic bag use. In July 2007, Ireland increased the fee to 32 cents.

Silverman acknowledges that it will take time in United States. “It’s a culture change. All grocery stores are selling the totes.”

Remembering to bring them along is key.

She suggests that instead of the bulky canvas totes, customers might consider nylon bags by Chico which can be thrown into a purse, backpack or briefcase. “That way, if on the way home you need to pick up a few groceries, you’ll have a lightweight, compact tote that is reusable. In Manhattan, or any city where people commute using public transportation, a thin nylon bag would be ideal.”

Other cities also are looking at plastic bag usage.

In March 2007, San Francisco banned the use of plastic bags. According to reports, the city is using 5 million less plastic bags each month.

The Los Angeles City Council voted last summer to ban plastic bags by July 1, 2010. The people of Los Angeles use about 2.3 billion bags a year, with only about 5 percent being recycled.

In Seattle, a 20 cents fee on both plastic and paper bags passed last summer to go into effect in 2009. But this fall, a referendum was launched to halt the process. It is expected to be voted on in the new year, according to Andy Ryan, spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). Seattle uses about 360 million disposable bags each year, according to an SPU report. By placing a fee on the bags, that number was projected to be cut in half.

In Dallas, the city is considering a voluntary program to lessen plastic bag usage. “This will be promoted through education and outreach efforts. [But] we are not planning to impose any tax or fees to reduce the usage of plastic shopping bags in Dallas like New York City,” says Meghna Tare, the city’s environmental coordinator.

Boston, Phoenix and Austin are among other cities considering phasing out plastic bags.

The decision to cut back on plastic, as well as paper, bags, is not an easy one for any city. It can aggravate customers and store owners. One mayor, however, cut through the debate to get to the heart of the matter.

“The answer to the question, ‘paper or plastic?’ is neither. The best way to reduce waste is not to create it,” Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this past summer.

Copyright © 2008 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media