Saturday, August 22, 2009

The War Against Plastic Bags Suffered a Major Defeat in Seattle Last Tuesday


Walter Brooke (Mr. McGuire) to Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin Braddock) in the 1967 classic The Graduate: “Ben, one word, I just want to say one word to you – just one word – plastics.”

Plastics were the wave of the future: plastic furniture, toys, bottles, boxes, car parts, dishes, garbage cans, pipes, screws, polypropylene, polyethylene, polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, acrylic, bakelite, celluloid, epoxy, nylon, Dacron, silicone, Tupperware, Formica, Styrofoam, Kevlar and Teflon. And plastic bags, especially those ubiquitous plastic bags, about 90 billion of them a year.

Plastic bags are lightweight and inexpensive. Market forces were driving paper bags the way of the dinosaur.

Plastic bags use less energy to manufacture, transport, and recycle than paper bags. They require 40% less energy to produce than paper bags. Every truckload full of plastic bags would need three trucks to carry the same number of paper bags. The production of plastic bags produces less greenhouse gases than paper bags as well as less air and water pollution.

That sounds like a better environmental deal than paper bags.

Yet plastic bags constitute a major litter problem on land and sea, are hazardous to fish and wildlife, and not biodegradable under ground. Plastic bags are recyclable, but the rates are low, finally rising to 7% (800 million pounds of bags) in recent years. Plastic is based on petrochemicals. Thus, about 17 million barrels of oil are needed to produce the plastic water bottles in America.

Communities, such as Los Angeles and New York, have considered imposing taxes on these bags, thereby affirming their commitment to environmental protection, not to mention raising a large sum of tax revenue. Los Angeles has tentatively banned plastic bags beginning in 2010 unless the state enacts a quarter tax on each bag. San Francisco bans them outright.

New York City imposed a mandatory recycling program; stores must provide collection bins for the bags.

Whole Foods discontinued plastic bags in January 2008, preferring that customers use reusable cloth bags. These recyclable bags have risks of their own. If not kept clean, infection is a foreseeable consequence.

The 7% recycling rate amounted to 800 million pounds of plastic bags. At $.50/bag the potential revenue stream would be a godsend to strapped public budgets.

Seattle is one of the nation’s most beautiful, most progressive cities.

Remember the classic checkout question: plastic or paper?

The Seattle City Council said a pox and tax on both sides. It imposed in June 2008 a tax of $.20 on each plastic and paper bag dispensed by grocery, drug, and convenience stores, effective January 1, 2009. The estimated tax revenues were $3-15 million annually. The actual amount raised was an astonishing 0.

Opponents immediately put the tax to a referendum, staying its application.

Seattle voters, the progressive Seattle voters, tossed out the tax last Tuesday. The vote wasn’t even close. The tally was 58% for repeal and 42% for the tax. This margin is a landslide by political standards. The incumbent Mayor was also apparently defeated for reelection.

A quarter century ago a few states thought of banning disposable diapers; health risks and their gross volume in disposal sites led the drive for reusable diapers. Mothers of all stripes, from rich to poor, politically involved Yuppies and disengaged young parents said no in no uncertain words.

One of the practical realities is that personal comfort and convenience often trump our desire to save Planet Earth. Science and health risks fall to convenience in the political world.

Voters also don’t like taxes, whatever their purpose.

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