A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bags ban: good idea — on paper

posted July 17th in the Signal.com

Los Angeles County’s ordinance on the ban of plastic shopping bags in unincorporated county stores went into effect July 1. Despite the huffing and puffing of many who claim it’s an infringement on consumers’ right to choose, it’s ultimately a good move, but not without some glaring flaws.

Yes, it’s odd that we’re on the side of an ordinance that also passed in San Francisco, but it’s for our own good.

How many times have you seen plastic shopping bags wafting down the streets when the Santa Ana winds come blowing through? How many thousands of discarded bags line the wash and the Santa Clara River? How many thousands, if not millions of dollars are spent clearing them from all over the county?

An L.A. County study estimates the average household in the county uses roughly 1,600 plastic bags each year. That’s a lot — especially when you consider that there are about 3.2 million households in the county. That comes out to about 5.1 billion plastic bags used each year.

And far too many of those end up on the streets, sidewalks, landfills and the ocean. The last part is evidenced by what’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash floating north of Hawaii that’s roughly twice the size of Texas.

But paper bags are biodegradable, stores are required to use fully recyclable bags and 40 percent of each bag has to be made from recycled material.

Because plastic bags have been cheap to produce, free for consumers and available essentially everywhere for decades, we’ve all taken them for granted when we go shopping. So, for those who shop in unincorporated county areas — where the ban has taken place — it’s a bit jarring and frustrating. But it’s supposed to be.

There is some logic behind this, however ham-handed the execution may be.

Beyond the frustration of no longer being able to get plastic bags, shoppers are fuming at the fact that the once-free paper bags are now 10 cents apiece — as is mandated by the county ordinance.

The idea is to dissuade consumers from exclusively using paper bags so we aren’t instead using billions of those each year.

The 10-cent collection goes to the stores, not the county, as some believe. And its purpose is to cover the cost of the paper bags and to fund campaigns that encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to the stores.

This is where we stop liking the ordinance.

Instead of using a proverbial carrot like Target’s model, in which customers who bring in their own bags get a five-cent discount per shopper bag used, those who are affected by the ban are given a heavy dose of stick — 10 cents at a time.

Ten cents per bag isn’t likely to break the bank for anyone, but it’s just pricey enough to be really annoying, especially after bags have been free for so many years. But that’s the point; the county wants shoppers to get frustrated and motivated enough to bring their own bags.

Reusable bags are a good thing; they save money and reduce pollution and litter. But it’s much more shopper-friendly to not penalize shoppers by charging them for the paper bags, and instead incentivize the use of reusable bags by offering discounts.

L.A. County is hoping its progressive and proactive stance on litter will serve as a template for the rest of the state and the country, but it’s already causing confusion and frustration in its limited execution.

Local shoppers who live just outside the city borders aren’t embracing the new change, and it has led many of them to drive down the road a bit and go to stores in the city of Santa Clarita — thus costing county merchants business.

It would be better if the ordinance were everywhere  or nowhere in the county, instead of targeting select areas and largely nullifying the environmental impacts of the change. This should be a state resolution to ensure sweeping change, and not just target a select few parts of California.

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