by Tim Shestek
SB 536 proposes to prohibit all Oregon retailers from providing customers with plastic bags, while also imposing a minimum 5-cent tax on each paper bag. Though well intentioned, this suggested approach falls short both economically and environmentally.
Reusable bags are a nice option, but it’s not realistic to expect all shoppers to have a reusable bag at all times. This would mean that in many, if not all instances shoppers would be forced to pay a tax on bags, which could impose significant costs on Oregon families struggling to make ends meet in a depressed economy. Even if you assume 50% of Oregonians use a reusable bag, passage of SB 536 could result in adding $25 million in new grocery costs for residents. Even the proponents acknowledge the likely financial burden on consumers since the bill exempts certain individuals (e.g. WIC recipients) from having to pay for paper bags.
Banning plastic bags could also make it harder for smaller grocers and convenience stores to compete with larger chain operations, since larger chains can leverage their buying power to pay less for paper bags, which are typically more expensive than plastic. As drafted, the bill requires stores to charge “not less than five cents” for a paper bag. A huge disparity exists if a larger store can buy paper bags for 5 cents but a small, neighborhood market must buy bags from a supplier at 10 or 15 cents each.
And then there’s the problem of the legislature engaging in price controls for consumer goods. Legislators have tried price controls before (setting minimum or maximum prices for things like milk and rent) and these approaches wind up being unfair or unworkable. If this regulatory scheme is acceptable for retail bags, what products are next? Take-out food packaging? Candy wrappers? Potato chip bags? Coffee cups? Where does it end?
Lost in all of this is the focus solving the real problem, litter. You cannot tax and ban litter away. Experience shows us that it just doesn’t work. When San Francisco banned the use of plastic carryout bags a few years ago, most shoppers simply switched to heavier paper bags and by the city’s own estimate, there was no measureable decrease in litter
A “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach has proven to be an effective and more consumer-friendly way to reduce bag waste and litter. We know that the vast majority of U.S. consumers – almost 90 percent – already reuse their bags around the house for things like lining wastebaskets, picking up after pets or diaper duty. And what consumers don’t reuse should be recycled along with product wraps– like the wraps around soda, paper towels, diapers and other products.
Despite rhetoric from bill proponents, recycling plastic bags and wraps is working. More than 850 million pounds of plastic bags and wraps were recycled in 2009, according to a national report, and the recycling rate has doubled since 2005 to around 13 percent. Today more than 18,000 grocery and retail locations around the country have bag and wrap recycling bins and major national retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Lowe’s now offer bins at their stores nationwide. Encouraging and further promoting the recycling of paper and plastic bags are positive steps Oregon could take without stripping choice and imposing extra costs on consumers.
Passage of SB 536 hurts small businesses, raises grocery prices for families, and could dismantle local recycling programs. Take the time today to urge your state legislators to vote NO on SB 536.
Tim Shestek is the State Affairs Sr. Director for the American Chemistry Council