By Adam Chimeo for Eugene Daily News
On September 17th, the Eugene City Council will meet to determine whether residents of Eugene are ready to ban the plastic bag. The public hearing is a continuation of a discussion established during July’s hearing regarding the execution of the proposed ban. Though the majority of citizens seem to support the idea, the public hearings have managed to stir up heated debates as to whether we should follow the Portland or Corvallis method.
Portland has led the state in the movement to ban the bag. In an open letter to the citizens of Portland, Mayor Sam Adams addressed the impact of the plastic bag in Oregon:
“Growing up on the Oregon coast, I saw firsthand the devastating effects that discarded plastic has on our waterways and wildlife. In Portland, and in all of Oregon, single-use plastic checkout bags are an eyesore, getting into our waterways and our storm drains. Plastic bags are a nuisance, jamming up recycling facility machines and costing those facilities tens of thousands of dollars a month in maintenance and labor to fix the mess.”
Enacted October 1st, 2011, Portland’s plastic bag prohibition specifically targeted supermarkets with $2 million or more in gross annual sales and stores with pharmacies with at least 10,000 square feet of space. By focusing on larger stores like Target and Walmart, Mayor Adams hopes to drastically reduce the amount of trash throughout the city.
A survey conducted by Environment Oregon, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Portland, has recorded 8.5 million plastic bags eliminated from the waste stream per month. However, many Portlanders are claiming that the plastic ban has simply switched our dependence from plastic to paper. Sarah Higginbotham, Director of the Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center, says,
“Although the current ban was a great start, it did not go far enough. Portland banned single-use plastic bags from major grocery stores and retailers, but a stricter bag ban is necessary to reduce more plastic bag consumption and to address the use of paper bags.”
Corvallis has also banned the single-use plastic bag, although their plan differs slightly from the Portland method. After a heated city council meeting that took place on July 3rd, the citizens of Corvallis added an amendment requiring businesses to impose a pass-through fee of five cents or more on grocery bags made of paper. This was done to motivate shoppers to make the switch to reusable bags.
Higginbotham hopes to enact a similar pass-through fee in her own city:
“Based on experiences in other cities, we know that paper bag usage will increase if there isn’t a disincentive placed on paper bags in addition to a ban on plastic bags. It has been shown that with a small fee on the use of paper bags, consumers shift significantly to reusable bags.”
Though alternative bagging options are becoming increasingly popular, a large majority of consumers still prefer the convenience of plastic. Sure, customers may be aware of the environmental damage of plastic bags when they go shopping, but without an extra push, most people will not go through the trouble of bringing multiple reusable bags from home. This happens no matter how menial the task may sound on paper.
Andrew Roll is a fourth-year student at the University of Oregon. He is one of many people who worry about the environmental repercussions of a society running on plastic. Roll says,
“Bags are everywhere. When I go heavy-duty grocery shopping and forget my reusable bags at home I find myself with no other option but to go with the plastic.”
Many Eugenians are finding themselves in this exact situation at the grocery store. Roll continues, “And it’s not just the bags. It’s everything. Everything is wrapped in plastic. You can’t get away from it. I mean, I usually return my bags to the store every other month or so for recycling, but it feels like a drop in the bucket.”
Drop in the bucket, or drop in the ocean?
Proponents of the plastic bag ban have expressed concerns regarding the amount of trash in the ocean. The overabundance of plastic has led to an influx in marine litter. After a short while adrift, the plastic photodegrades into miniscule, microscopic pieces. This photodegradation begins an environmentally devastating process in which small fish and other wildlife digest the harmful plastic, which in turn introduces it to the diet of the larger animals; thus creating a domino effect throughout the entire food chain.
A more visible representation of the ocean’s plastic woes is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a gyre located in the central North Pacific Ocean contaminated with marine litter. Though the size of the garbage patch is still being debated, research sponsored by the National Science Foundation suggests that the affected area may be twice the size of Hawaii and its presence has awoken many to the notion of irreversible oceanic damage.
Higginbotham says that a plastic bag ban in Eugene can directly help counter marine litter:
“The City of Eugene estimates the public uses 67 million plastic bags a year. A bag ban in Eugene will allow the city to stand up for protecting Oregon’s coasts and the Pacific Ocean. In addition, plastic bags are an expensive nuisance for our co-mingled recycling centers in Oregon. Plastic is the most common type of marine debris worldwide, and comprises up to 90% of floating marine debris.”
Is Eugene ready to trash the plastic bag?
The idea has begun to pick up steam, though many are still debating how the proposed ban would be executed as well as whether a paper bag tax should be included. Unfortunately, banning plastic bags would not be enough to stop the whole problem. Next time you stroll through the grocery store, take note of how many items are wrapped in some sort of plastic container — or perhaps it would be easier to look for the things that are not.
Cities like Portland, Corvallis, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and as of recently, the entire state of Hawaii have all recognized the threat of plastic in our local ecosystems. There is also an enormous amount of oil, energy, and finances that go into the production of this convenience that could easily be avoided and then diverted to better causes.
So what will the future hold for Eugene? Paper? Plastic? Or something else?