Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paper, Plastic or Neither, Revisited

By Brian Rohter

Last night I participated in a panel discussion, sponsored by Recycling Advocates, about how our community should deal with the use of “single use” grocery bags. City Commissioner Sam Adams, David Allaway, a waste prevention specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Tom Watson, a King County Washington recycling specialist were the other presenters.

Commissioner Adams was part of the conversation because he is a leading advocate for coming up with a plan to reduce the amount of bags that go into our waste stream (definitely a worthy goal). His office had started an effort to limit the use of bags last year and I blogged about it at that time. The momentum for this project slowed down during election season, but Commissioner Adams recently gave it a major push. In a nutshell, the proposal is to charge a fee for any bags you get the checkstands of grocery, drug or convenience stores. The Oregonian did a pretty comprehensive job describing the situation. "Which is best: Paper or plastic?"

David Allaway, from DEQ, explained the science behind the issue. While some of it was pretty wonky, one statement that I found particularly interesting was, that if we eliminated virtually every single plastic bag in Oregon, we would only reduce our greenhouse emissions by one tenth of one percent (.1%).

Tom Watson, from Seattle, talked about what had been going on up there and how the plastics industry trade groups had forced the issue about charging fees for paper and plastic bags to be put to a ballot. He said that three of the issues that had been discussed widely in Seattle were: There are more important environmental issues, so why is the city focusing on this? Why limit this to just grocery stores as opposed to department stores and others who use bags? And what about the people who reuse bags for garbage can liners and pet clean up, etc.? I would have been interested in hearing what the answers to these concerns were.

Commissioner Adams explained his reasoning behind the proposal and made it really clear that he was still in the information gathering phase and was committed to reaching out to all the stakeholders to create a win for our community as a whole. The Oregonian has a good summary of last nights meeting online already. "Is Portland ready to eliminate one-time-use grocery bags?"

I explained that even though the paper bags are way more expensive (11 cents each compared to about 3 cents each for plastic), New Seasons Market has never used the plastic bags because, we felt that the paper bags were clearly a better environmental choice. We’ve also done our best to reduce consumption by offering our customers an incentive to reuse paper bags and by offering plastic bag recycling stations.

I would support a ban on the plastic bags, as it seems like anything we can do to reduce the use of petroleum products is really important. However, I’m not ready to support a fee for people who want (or think they need) to use paper bags. I know that some folks think that it would be easy for people to avoid paying the fee (Just bring a reusable bag with you when you shop!), but I’m not convinced that it’s quite that simple. For the past year we’ve been trying hard to figure out how to remind our shoppers to bring their bags back with them and we’ve had pretty good progress. During 2007, in about 17% of our transactions, our customers reused their own bags. So far, during 2008, that percentage has jumped to about 27%. Even though we’re pleased with this improvement, we obviously still have a long way to go.

My suggestion is that we go ahead and prohibit the use of the plastic bags as Phase 1 and then assess the situation before we start Phase 2. This would have a couple of advantages; first it would give the folks in Portland a chance to adapt to the new way of doing things and second, it would give us an opportunity to learn from some of the other cities (like Seattle and San Francisco) who are considering similar policies. It seems like any time a change like this occurs, there are unintended consequences and I’d rather have a better understanding of what some of those lessons are before we try this experiment on 750,000 people.

I think our most important goal should be to do this right—to do a really good job on the planning and the implementation. If we get it right, it will be easier to “export” it to the rest of the state and, maybe like our bottle bill, to other parts of the country.

I’m definitely interested in what you are thinking about this and would be excited to see you chime in. Thanks to Commissioner Adams and Recycling Advocates for putting on the event. It was really worthwhile.