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Market sacks plastic bags

Market sacks plastic bags

Retailers, shoppers should take lead, not cities

Published: The Register-Guard, September 15, 2008

Opinion: Editorials & Letters: Story

The time has come to bag the plastic shopping bag, but the best way to accomplish that is for retailers and shoppers to take the lead rather than for cities and counties to adopt blanket laws that prohibit or tax the ubiquitous carry-outs.

Market of Choice has set a good example by becoming the second grocery chain with a Eugene-­Springfield presence to end the use of plastic shopping bags. The first to do so was California-based Trader Joe’s, which for several years has offered only paper bags or, for a small charge, its own reusable bags.

It’s a growing movement that should keep growing. Plastic bags have become a colossal pollution problem, clogging America’s landfills and littering its cities, roadsides, rivers, lakes, oceans and even its wildernesses. Not merely an eyesore, the bags can be fatal to wildlife, especially marine animals, that ingest or become ensnared in them.

Unless the petroleum-based bags are properly recycled, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. Americans use an estimated 100 billion bags a year, and only an estimated 5 percent are recycled.

Some cities have begun to address the problem. In 2007, San Francisco became the first municipality to adopt a citywide ban on the use of plastic shopping bags, allowing grocery stores to distribute paper bags or biodegradable film bags that resemble plastic but are made of corn. Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted a 20-cent fee on disposable grocery bags, and the Portland City Council is considering a similar proposal.

A preferable approach is for individual retailers to take action on their own, as Trader Joe’s and Market of Choice have in the Eugene-Springfield area, and for others to follow their lead. This leaves retailers free to tailor approaches to their respective clienteles and to devise their own marketing strategies, such as charging customers who use disposable bags and offering rebates or other incentives to customers who bring their own reusable totes.

The long-term goal should be to reduce usage of all disposable bags, both plastic and paper. While the national focus has been on plastic, paper bags have problems of their own. They generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Four times as much energy is required to produce paper bags and 85 times as much energy is needed to recycle them, and paper takes up nine times as much space in landfills and surprisingly doesn’t break down at a significantly faster rate than plastic. Then there’s the matter of the trees it takes to make them.

Shoppers can help solve the problem by either reusing whatever bags their stores distribute or, better yet, carrying purchases home in affordable, reusable cloth bags available in most supermarkets.

Ultimately, if stores and shoppers prove unable or unwilling to reduce the usage of disposable bags, then local governments may be forced to take action. But for now, retailers and shoppers should take the lead.