“Paper or plastic?” That’s becoming a question being asked less and less in America, as more and more cities enact bans and fees on shopping bags.
“They’ve become an icon of waste,” said Jennie Romer, an attorney and founder of plasticbaglaws.org, a website designed to assist municipalities considering bag legislation.
In 2007, Romer worked with the city of San Francisco to enact a law banning stores from handing out plastic bags altogether.
Five years later, the fight continues, though this week supporters of banning bags received what they are calling a major victory. On Wednesday, a San Francisco Superior Court judge upheld the validity of a local ordinance extending the 2007 ban to all retail stores and restaurants, and adding a 10-cent charge on all other bags provided to consumers.
An association of plastic bag manufacturers and distributors identifying itself as “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition” sued the city of San Francisco earlier this year to halt enforcement and invalidate the law.
“That’s their tactic,” said Romer, who is now in New York City working on bag regulation there. “Sue the city with hopes of intimidating other smaller cities who they know can’t afford to wage the fight.”
Romer, who for years has worked with San Francisco lawmakers drafting policies that are currently in place, says she’s contacted daily by towns across the country looking for assistance in creating bag ordinances of their own.
Back in 2007, charging fees for plastic shopping bags or banning them was unheard of in the U.S. Once San Francisco’s legislation passed, it quickly spread throughout the state and across the nation.
According to the Campaign for Recycling, a U.S. nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, municipalities in 12 states plus Washington, DC have passed a ban or fee. Seven other states have pending legislation.
In most cities, Romer says, bags are still free. “So no one sees any value in them. Every day I walk to work and see 10-15 plastic bags blowing in the wind. They end up in storm drains, water waste and in the ocean. Plastic bags are something you use for five minutes, but they exist forever,” said Romer.
Wanting to do something proactive to help the environment is the primary reason most cities have adopted bag bans or fees, said Romer, but she added, “each group has a different motivation as to why they are supportive of these types of laws.”
The motivation behind the regulations is just one of the key arguments from critics.
“What is the ban really for?” asked Pamela Villarreal, with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit think tank in Dallas.
“Some of the ideas seem to be about feeling good about the environment rather than the actual affects and the economic implications of these kinds of polices,” she said.
Last month, the NCPA released a report that Villarreal says, is the first real survey focused on the economic effects of the Los Angles County bag ban that went into effect last summer.
In L.A. plastic bags are banned only in stores located in unincorporated parts of the county.
“We found that the stores in unincorporated areas reported losses while stores in the incorporated area found sales gains,” said Villarreal. Those same stores, she said, had to lay employees off due to lack of revenue, as consumers chose to shop at stores in the incorporated parts of the county where the bag ban is not in place.
If the ban occurred across the county, however, Villarreal said you may not have seen this shift. “You may have seen people change their behavior.”
Dozens of other countries have enacted bans and fees. According to the World Watch Institute, an independent research group, Mumbai, India banned plastic bags in 2000 to prevent garbage from clogging storm drains during monsoon season. Bag bans or taxes have been also been adopted in Australia and Russia.
In China, where plastic bags were often found washing up on beaches, the government reported supermarkets reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent since a policy banning stores from giving free plastic bags to customers became law in June 2008.
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