The proposed bag ban: closest thing to Oregon’s holy grail of green, the bottle bill

By Dave Lister

Back when you were offered a choice in the checkout line, I always said “paper” rather than “plastic.” It wasn’t until a hurried clerk bagged my items without asking that I discovered the advantages of plastic. You could carry a weeks’ worth of groceries from your car to your door in a single trip by hooking them over your fingers. You could use them as lunch bags, garbage bags, storage bags or pet waste collectors. My toolbox is full of them, doing the duty of keeping the finish nails separated from the ring shanks. I use them for all kinds of things.

I don’t blame Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton, a Democrat who doesn’t know any better, for his Senate co-sponsorship of a bill to ban plastic grocery bags statewide. That’s the liberal approach. Regulate guns to solve a gang problem. Regulate bags to solve a littering problem. They never deal with the underlying problem, just the peripheries.

But I will take to task the bill’s Senate co-sponsor, Jason Atkinson, a Central Point Republican who should know better. As a Republican, Atkinson should know that mandates don’t solve problems; they create them. But as an Oregon Republican eyeing higher office, he apparently believes he has to establish his green credentials. And there’s no better way than to climb aboard the bag ban, the closest thing to Oregon’s holy grail of green, the bottle bill, that we’ve seen in decades.

Atkinson, who according to a Senate colleague makes an excellent mai tai, seemed to be a rising star in the Oregon GOP for a while. He was a serious contender for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2006 — until he was eviscerated by radio talk show host Lars Larson for his response to a question about illegal immigration. It appeared certain that Atkinson would be a contender again in 2010 until he suffered an accidental and rather mysterious self-inflicted gunshot wound that put him on the sidelines.

All healed and ready to forge ahead with his political aspirations, he’s styling himself as a modern-day Tom McCall. And because no overzealous motel owners have tried to rope off a portion of an Oregon beach lately, jumping on the ban-the-bag bus may seem to be a good way to do it.

It’s ironic though that so-called “single-use” plastic bag was originally introduced as an environmentally friendly option that would save trees. Despite assertions to the contrary by ban supporters, the bags are not made of imported oil; they’re a byproduct of natural gas production. And the notion of a Texas-size floating mass of plastic off the Pacific coast — a claim used as a preamble to a city of Portland push poll on the subject — has been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community.

The reusable plastic alternatives offered by the grocery chains not only require foreign oil, they probably rely on Chinese sweat-shop labor for their production. The other reusable alternative, cloth bags, need regular washing to remain free of bacteria from food residue. If you don’t run them through the wash, you risk contaminating your food. And more laundry means more energy use and more phosphates in our rivers.

I suppose in the end the Legislature will ban the bag. This is Oregon after all. If we don’t come up with a progressive national first every couple of years, we’re just not doing our job. And Atkinson will be able to tout the ban as his environmental bona fides during his next run for higher office.

As for me, I guess I’ll pony up a nickel for the paper bag that stores used to give me for free. After unloading, I’ll toss them in the recycling bin, and they’ll truly be single use.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.