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Bag Bans: Boosting Business?

by on November 11, 2013


There are many in our nation currently struggling to put food on their table.  For these people, a few cents could mean the difference between a proper meal and an empty stomach.  For this reason and others, shoppers have been taking a stand against the tax being placed on plastic shopping bags in many communities across the United States.

Plastic bags are a convenient way to carry groceries home from the store, for most people that is.  For others though, they represent everything wrong with today’s self-centered American culture.  These people, advocates of the ban, cite many reasons for their distaste with the plastic bags being given away for free in the large majority of grocery stores across the United States.

Standing out among their concerns is the sheer number of plastic bags being distributed each and every day.  Seattle, WA alone blows through about 292 million plastic bags a year.  That’s 800 thousand bags a day, or about 33 thousand an hour!  The problem advocates of the ban find with this is the disturbingly high percentage of these bags that ultimately end up in our environment, bringing the deaths of plants and animals in their wake.

Critics of the ban though, have a very different viewpoint on the topic.  To these people, the bans signify a sort of elitist tendency of the upper/middle class.  They claim  saving the environment is something most low-income citizens wouldn’t put very high on their list of priorities.  While wealthier families easily have the cash flow to spend an extra few cents each time they grocery shop, less affluent ones need all the help they can get, and every penny counts.

With so many plastic bags already in the environment, it would seem impossible to clean them all up.  Sadly, according to most researchers, this is exactly the case.  In the current state of technology, there is simply no way to extract the seemingly infinite amount plastic bags from America’s rivers, forests, and oceans.

 So what do we do?  Put shortly, we do what we can.  Though we may never completely rid the planet of plastic bag litter, some things we can do are to make sure it doesn’t get polluted any further, and to put our best efforts into removing as much pollution as possible.

One way of getting rid of some of the plastic bag waste already in the environment is to collect it, then repurpose it for something useful.  But what could be more useful than the already handy plastic shopping bag? How about your life.

Researchers at University of Adelaide have found a way to melt plastic bags down into microscopic nanotubes, which can then be used to treat people with cancer.  Nanotubes are nothing new to the field of cancer treatment, but the ability to produce them out of plastic bags means they can be made far more cheaply, an undoubtedly positive advancement for the medical community.

But the benefits to be had from the ban on plastic bags are not all as humanitarian as the nanotubes.  With the ban on plastic bags in place, grocery stores are still responsible for providing their customers with something to carry their purchases in.  To deal with this, most stores with the ban provide their customers paper bags.

But unlike the plastic bags that were free, the paper bags are taxed.  Though this tax is usually only about 5-10 cents, the large number of bags distributed every day makes for a steady stream of income for any grocery store.

But for some, the idea of paying for paper bags doesn’t make any sense.  These people say they perfectly understand the concerns with plastic bags, and the damage they are doing to the environment, but do not understand why grocery stores cannot simply give out the paper bags like they did previously with the plastic ones.  After all, paper is completely biodegradable and environmentally safe, right?

But these people are missing the point completely.  The taxed paper bags were implemented as more than a replacement for plastic bags, and more than an extra source of income for grocery stores.  More than either of these, they were started as a way to encourage the public to bring their own reusable bags shopping.  Citizens were intended to see the extra price of paper bags, and then decide to bring their own out of practicality.

But all this reduction in plastic bags from the environment hasn’t gone unnoticed by the money-hungry businessmen of America.  The effect the bans have had on the plastic industry were apparent in the 2008 bag ban controversy in Seattle.  That year, the city council unanimously voted in favor of a law that would place a 20 cent tax on plastic bags.  Of course, the plastic company was outraged by this, and so they paid a group of lobbyists 1.4 million dollars to get it overturned, which they did successfully.

This issue really doesn’t have to be as black and white as it is though.  In a few places, including Toronto, grocery store owners are able to decide if and how much they will charge for bags.

In other places, like Anacortes, WA, only grocery stores that fall under certain stipulations have to charge for bags.  In Anacortes specifically, all grocery stores over 40,000 square feet are required to place a 5 cent tax on their bags.

The only way we can make sure our efforts to reduce plastic waste last into the future is by getting the American public fully on board.  We do this through a creative use of incentives, and there are a few cities putting this practice to use already.

To start with is Santa Fe, NM, which prepared its citizens for an upcoming plastic bag ban by giving out 10,000 reusable cloth bags for free.  The best rewards program thus far has to go to Hawaii though, where every shopper who brings their own bag gets a few cents off their purchase—talk about a good reason to be environmentally conscious!

 – Hayden Jarman



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