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My 5 cents’ worth about Earth Day

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

My 5 cents’ worth about Earth Day

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Several months ago, I bought a 99c GreenBag and since then it has more than paid for itself in the savings I make by taking it to my local Lucky supermarket. As the cash register receipt above shows, I get a 5c credit every time I use it instead of taking my groceries home in a plastic or paper bag.

Many supermarkets—from stores like Grocery Outlet, with its cut-price goods, to upscale supermarkets in toney suburbs, have their own branded GreenBags or reusable alternatives for sale, but you can buy them elsewhere. Some are emblazoned with wording that promotes their use. I’m not entirely sure how the GreenBags themselves can be recycled, but apparently they can. And there is much debate about whether paper bags are better than plastic ones from an environmental point of view, given the enormous amount of energy needed to manufacture them. Not to mention the trees.

In last November’s election, the small Northern California town of Fairfax put a Plastic Bag Ordinance on the ballot, “requiring the use of recyclable paper and/or reusable checkout bags by all shops, stores, eating places, food vendors and retail food vendors located in the Town of Fairfax, and providing penalties for violations.” The measure passed “overwhelmingly” by a vote of Yes 3705 (78.51%) to No 1014 (21.49%), according to the Town Manager’s blog.

The voter information pamphlet for the proposed ordinance quoted an Environmental Protection Agency report that said “over 52,000 tons of disposable bags were used in California in 2000 and less than 50 tons were recovered for recycling.” But in a statement issued after the ordinance passed, the American Chemistry Council said that “Plastic is a valuable resource, too valuable to waste. It should be recycled,” and that the measure’s passage had reduced or eliminated “access by Fairfax consumers to recycling opportunities.”

Come again? What possible financial gain is there to the individual consumer by their use of plastic bags? Sure, California law requires stores to provide bins to which you can return clean used plastic bags, but who gets the money from the recycling? Is the American Chemistry Council not talking about money but just the “feel-good” opportunity that’s been lost? Assuming that most people don’t take bags back to the supermarket to recycle them, how were consumers supposed to recycle them easily anyway? If Fairfax’s recycling options are anything like Oakland’s, for example, plastic bags are specifically EXCLUDED from the list of items you can put in the household recycling carts that the City Council empties each week.

As for the daft San Francisco ordinance that became effective in November 2007, its requirement that the affected businesses can only provide “the following types of bags: a. compostable plastic, b. recyclable paper, c. reusable bag of any material” resulted in chain stores like Walgreens using—ta da!—reusable plastic bags, which practically no-one reuses. They are a slightly heavier weight than usual supermarket bags, with stronger handles, but they’re still plastic. There is a photo of one in a September, 2008, report about the effect of SF’s ordinance, published in the Reports section of the American Chemistry Council’s website. Perhaps that’s what will also be supplied in Fairfax.

Another section in the Fairfax ordinance states: “Nothing in this Ordinance shall be interpreted or applied so as to create any requirement, power or duty in conflict with any federal or state law.” That’s a standard clause in any local authority’s ordinances because that’s the way things function in the US, with its three-tiered legislative system. Currently, there is a bill in the California Assembly that seeks to impose a 25c tax on single-use shopping bags, which would be paid into a Bag Pollution Fund in the State Treasury, a fund that would be used for grants to cities and counties for consumer education programs and reusable bag giveaways.

A similar bill introduced in California in 2003 was the catalyst for the formation of a national Plastic Bag Coalition, spearheaded by the plastics industry trade association, The Society of the Plastics Industry, to oppose any such legislation, anywhere, any time. The front page of the website features a large photo of Obama smiling at a checkout operator as he is handed two plastic bags of goods he has just bought, with the caption “Paper or plastic, Mr. President?”

A “Christmas candy” store display behind Obama shows that the photo was taken before he became President, but now that he is, perhaps he can take to carrying a neatly folded GreenBag in his jacket pocket for future photo ops. Or a good old-fashioned string bag, for heaven’s—and the oceans’—sakes! Maybe even a bag woven from surplus red tape to show how committed he is to reducing government waste.

At the federal level, on Earth Day this year, Virginia Congressman Jim Moran introduced “Earth-friendly legislation ... that would place a 5 cent fee on single use bags from grocery stores and other retail outlets in order to encourage reusable bag use. The Plastic Bag Reduction Act of 2009 would allocate the funding generated to land and water conservation programs, to pay down the national debt, and to cover the costs for local businesses to implement the program.”

Since anything that smacks of taxes—and all such measures are so easily memed as a “tax on shopping” that none of them in any large constituency has gained any traction except perhaps in Ireland, where the tax is 33c per bag and where the original GreenBags were manufactured—is doomed to failure, I suppose this is just a feel-good attempt by Congressman Moran (D) to ally himself with Obama’s green policies.

Now, although he doesn’t mention the topic of this column, I’ll leave you with a Republican giving the first-ever YouTube posting of a weekly radio address by a California Governor, in which he reflects on Earth Day.



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