MONTEREY, Calif.— They don’t ask, “Paper or plastic?” around here anymore. Single-use plastic bags are banned, and stores offering paper are required to charge the stiff price of 25 cents per bag.
The Monterey law, like many anti-bag ordinances popping up around the nation and the globe, seems to have been authored with good intentions, but where some see overdue environmental awareness, others see government overreach.
California leads the nation in combating bag pollution, with more than 70 local governments having banned single-use plastic bags. This month, the state’s Supreme Court upheld the ordinance in Los Angeles County, which forbids plastic bags and imposes a 10-cent charge for paper bags.
Ironically, the suit challenging LA’s law was brought by an award-winning recycling company, Hilex Poly, which operates one of the world’s largest facilities for turning old plastic bags into new ones. Last year, the firm’s Indiana plant handled over 20 million pounds of used bags, collected from over 30,000 in-store recycling bins.
The U.S. goes through about 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year. Because plastics disintegrate very slowly in landfills and in the ocean, they pose a significant environmental threat.
Something must be done—and most municipalities have at least looked at the problem, with many having taken action. But while the problem is clear-cut, solutions are not.
As Hilex Poly has demonstrated, plastic bags can be recycled efficiently. The problem is that both consumers and retailers have been lax. Bags must be kept separate from other recyclables, which is best done by returning used bags to in-store receptacles—and too few shoppers bother with it.
Outright bans on plastic bags appeal to environmentalists, but cause unintended consequences such as compelling consumers to purchase more plastic trash bags for use at home. When a fee for paper bags accompanies the ban, as with the 25-cent charge in Monterey, the consumer is really stuck.
Cloth and reusable plastic bags are impractical for many shoppers and are notoriously unsanitary. Research by the British government indicates that a cotton bag must be used between 131 and 173 times before it dips below the global warming potential of the plastic bags it would replace.
A levelheaded solution was introduced in the House last month by Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), whose legislation would impose a national 5-cent fee on all single-use store bags, paper and plastic. Rather than giving the money to retailers, as many local programs do, Moran’s bill allocates most of it to land and water conservation programs, as well as to reducing the national debt.
While Moran’s bill keeps the fee low, it compels consumers to at least think twice before simply accepting a bag at the checkout counter. Clerks should be trained to ask two things of every customer: “Do you need a bag today?” And, “Will you please bring back used bags for recycling?”
“Our environment is literally choking on plastic bags,” Moran said in an Earth Day message. “The time has come to implement a national program that encourages the use of reusable bags instead of plastic.”
Such thinking will encounter resistance from those who prefer to have states and local governments handle virtually all of society’s problems. But it makes little sense to have a 25-cent charge for a paper bag in one town, and unrestricted distribution of both paper and plastic bags across the street.
It is also impractical and unnecessary to turn back the clock and completely eliminate the convenience and occasional necessity of a plastic bag. As with many good causes, too many of us are recklessly indifferent, while others insist on being blind to practical considerations—as if they had a bag over their head.