Almost wrapped up

The numbers are well-known by now.

Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year. This costs retailers $4 billion.

Discarded plastic bags that wind up in the oceans are a hazard to marine life. Those that find their way to landfills can take up to 1,000 years to break down.

Single-use plastic grocery bags are an enormous solid waste problem that will be solved only when stores stop supplying them and consumers switch to reusable bags. That can happen through "market forces" or by government edict.

The city of Ashland is slowly making its way toward a combination of the two. We say slowly, because Portland, Eugene and Corvallis already have plastic bag ordinances in place. Los Angeles also is on board with an ordinance adopted in June that will begin to take effect in January.

When Environment Oregon approached the Ashland City Council in June, the council referred the question to the Ashland Conservation Commission, which has recommended drafting an ordinance to ban most plastic bags and require retailers to charge customers who don't bring their own reusable bags when they shop. The commission suggested a council decision next March, with the new rules taking effect in May.

We see no reason to resist this inevitable change, because the market is already beginning to embrace it. Some Ashland stores have stopped using plastic bags, and at least one grocer in Medford is offering a nickel back to customers who bring their own bags.

To be clear, just because some retailers have changed their policies does not mean all will, or that customers will bring their own bags without a financial incentive to do so. As destructive as plastic bags can be, paper bags are not environmentally benign either, requiring more energy to produce and ship than plastic bags.

At the same time, it makes sense to stop short of an absolute ban, because people will continue to use some plastic bags. The recommended ordinance would still allow plastic bags in produce and bulk food departments, among others.

An ordinance is preferable to waiting for the market to act because consumers will switch to reusable bags if they know they will be charged for each disposable bag. The website notes that a nominal fee imposed on plastic bags in Ireland reduced usage in that country by more than 93 percent.

In the absence of consequences, people naturally will continue to do things the way they always have. A gentle nudge in the right direction will help change behavior and benefit the environment at the same time.

Share This Story