Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seattle Bag Fee

Today’s the day when Seattle voters will decide whether to put their money--a little loose change, actually--where their mouth is.

You may have heard about the horrific, Alaska-sized mass of plastics and other human-made debris now circulating in the Pacific Ocean. Deadly to aquatic birds, turtles, marine mammals, and fish, this obscene mess is largely the shameful result of millions of bad decisions on the part of consumers, who use billions of plastic bags each year and can be careless about throwing them away.

Estimates vary regarding the actual number of plastic bags used each year, in the U.S. and elsewhere, but suffice it to say that the number is very, very, very large--large enough to be making bag manufacturers a lot of money, and of course therein lies the problem. When the interests of people making money cross with the interests of dolphins, the dolphins will lose every time.

Some optimistic and environmentally responsible people came up with a modest proposal: charging a 20-cent fee at stores for the privilege of using plastic bags. People who bring back their plastic (or, better, cloth) bags for reuse would of course avoid the modest charge--perhaps $1 for a week’s worth of groceries per person.

Here’s the point: nobody would have to “buy” bags! There would merely be a positive incentive to remember to bring reusable bags along on shopping trips.

To date, according to NPR, about $1.5 million has been spent in an effort to defeat this measure. Even those who don't profit from the consumption of billions of bags every year seem to be iffy about actually making a modest commitment to the health of the planet--a commitment Europeans made almost two decades ago, to their credit.

Seattle is allegedly one of the most environmentally aware communities in the country; if those who care can't turn out in numbers great enough to pass this measure, then there may be little hope for preserving what's left of the natural environment.


Idna said...

Just a little cynical observation ... we used to have the option of 'paper or plastic?' to hold our grocery purchases. It was the environmentalists who fought to replace paper with plastic to 'save the trees.' Trees ... renewable resource, does not pollute the ocean. Nice going!

PS - welcome back, Jane!

Sue said...

So: I'm curious. Where does the 20 cents per bag go? Does it support environmental causes or does it go to the retailers? And what was the "commitment Europeans made almost two decades ago?" And what is the similarity between a culture that has a longstanding tradition of using market baskets, shops at least once a day (and doesn't insist on all the food being hermetically sealed), and the modern American supermarket culture?

I love idealists -- they're so impractical. Even though I can appreciate the desire to reduce the number of bags used, I never seem to have them with me when I stop by the store on the way home from work or wherever. I tend to think as I'm getting out of my car, "darn, I should have brought my cloth bag." And when I see the loaded shopping carts many families buy, they'd have to bring a large bagful of bags to cope. And the bags do wear out -- maybe not disintigrate, but they get holes in them, get sticky stuff in them, etc. At 20 cents a bag, the cost can add up to quite a bit over a year.

My store used to have a recycle bin where you could bring your old bags. They discontinued it because it wasn't practical. Nobody wanted the old bags. I try to reuse as many as possible, ask checkers to fill the bags (instead of just putting a few items in each one) and to decline a bag if I'm only buying a couple of items. And I request paper whenever it's available. It's not only from a renewable resource, as Idna reminds us, it's also biodegradable and useful for a lot more things than the plastic ones will ever be.

Finally, where's your logic with the statement "nobody would have to 'buy' bags." People are going to have to buy some sort of bag somewhere along the line. It's just a question of what kind and where they'll spend their money.

Sorry, Jane, but the "save the world at someone else's cost" mentality doesn't cut it with me. I'd like to see people be responsible -- in which case they wouldn't be polluting -- but I suspect that the shoppers who are committed enough to bring their own bags are the ones who don't discard them carelessly anyway. And neither do a lot of the rest of us.

Citizen Jane said...

Thanks, Idna!

I agree with you that it was a bad idea to substitute plastic for paper. I'm sure the intentions were good at the time, but the means were misguided. People should have been able to foresee that enormous and ever-increasing quantities of plastics would have deadly effects on the environment, just as would lopping off trees to make paper bags. We should have focused then on the overall problem and not just one small aspect of the problem.

This discussion certainly has parallels with the health reform discussions going on now. The President and a few enlightened leaders are trying to push for an overall reform that will address the basic problems of high costs and inadequate and unequal care. Others are trying to substitute stopgap measures that not only won't solve the basic problems but are likely to create other problems down the road.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Sue,

Wow. You certainly seem to be invested in this topic!

I, too, carry cloth bags in my car and often forget to bring them in the store. This seems to be a universal problem, and the solution proposed by this piece of legislation is wonderfully designed to address this little human failing: when it comes to routine habits, it greatly helps to have some material incentive to change. The 3 cents per bag my market offers for bags brought from home doesn’t seem to help me remember to grab the bags; having to pay 20 cents per bag would.

This is based on a rather peculiar but well recognized fact regarding the human brain and decision making. We are powerfully programmed to avoid loss. Since the phenomenon of loss aversion was described by a couple of researchers named Tversky and Kahneman in 1979, it has been demonstrated by others many times and under many circumstances. While people tend to be indifferent to small gains, they are extremely aversive to even small losses. Hence, the bag “tax” should work well for what it’s designed to do.

Stores were I shop for groceries still have bins where I dutifully deposit plastic bags for recycling. But the point is, these petroleum products, which are so destructive to the environment, are almost completely unnecessary. If we can’t do better when it comes to little things, then how are we ever going to address the really big issues?