More Discussion: Paper vs. Plastic, Taxes vs. Bans

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No Thanks to Plastic Bags

As we wrote in September, the State of California failed to pass a proposition that would have banned the use of plastic bags statewide. While there are compelling reasons to abandon plastic bags (see them here), the “banning” approach may have been too extreme at a state level, since many California cities had already begun to develop voter-supported opinions and legislation on the matter. California obviously thought the same, and questioned whether banning plastic bags altogether was a good idea.

We cited Ireland’s plastic tax (or PlasTax) in that post, a market solution that discourages daily, thoughtless use of plastic bags by charging a nominal fee per bag at checkout. The Irish Department of the Environment found that in PlasTax’s first year, plastic bag usage had dropped 93.5 percent, from 328 to 21 bags per person each year. Without banning plastic outright, Ireland still reduced consumption dramatically.

A similar study has just been completed in China, where plastic bags have been taxed since 2008. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that the use of plastic shopping bags in China has dropped by 50 percent since the Chinese government required stores to charge for them. The success rate isn’t nearly as high as Ireland’s, but goes to show that while a cold-turkey ban on plastic might not be feasible (and may spawn unhealthy reactions from businesses and the community), simply charging for bags can significantly reduce plastic bag consumption. And since half of the plastic bags consumed after China’s tax became active were recycled, we can assume that recycling rates will rise as people are forced to think more intentionally about plastic consumption – something echoed in NPR’s exposé of the topic in its 20 Sept 2010 Planet Money segment.

Since we wrote our last plastic post, the following areas have either banned, taxed, or decided to ban or tax plastic bags:

  • Outer Banks, North Carolina
  • Washington, District of Columbia
  • Los Angeles County, California (more here)
  • Brownsville, Texas
  • Kauai and Maui Counties, Hawai’i
  • American Samoa

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is usually involved in each of these ban or tax cases, offering counterpoints to most of the arguments pro-ban or pro-tax folks present. If you take a look at their website, though, you’ll quickly notice that most of their rhetoric is silly. They demonize paper bags to defend plastic – and prove their point in part by citing that plastic bags are more lightweight than paper ones and posting pictures of a littered Los Angeles River asking viewers to try to spot plastic bags. Really, none of that matters, since nobody wins the paper vs. plastic debate. Paper and plastic both consume energy to produce and consume energy to recycle through waste streams – so there’s no waste or energy being reduced here.

At in.gredients we promote a “reduce, reuse, then recycle” approach – which is to say “reduce waste, reuse what you have to use, and recycle the rest.” We encourage our customers to use reusable containers and bags for grocery shopping, so as to generate zero waste.

And, if you press us for an answer, we’ll shamelessly support taxes on plastic bags.

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