Mike Lawrence: Paper or … paper? Plastic bags headed for history
July 11, 2007
There is a pile of ancient artifacts beneath my kitchen sink.
No, I’m not talking about the forgotten potatoes, which – last time I checked – had actually sprouted intelligent life and were planning a revolution against the equally-cultured broccoli in the vegetable crisper.
I’m talking about the plastic bags. The flimsy things you carry groceries in and then shove under the sink soon could be relics of a former time, like eight-track players or vacant lots in Steamboat Springs.
Plastic bags have been banned or taxed for years in South Africa, Kenya, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Ireland. San Francisco began restricting use of the bags in March. Annapolis, Md., is considering the idea.
So is Steamboat.
A week ago, the Steamboat Springs City Council voted, 6-1, to ask city staff to explore the feasibility of an ordinance to ban plastic bags in large retail stores such as Wal-Mart, Safeway and City Market.
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City Councilman Paul Strong cast the sole “no” vote, saying the City Council has much more pressing issues to deal with, but City Council President Susan Dellinger said Monday reducing use of the bags would be a step forward for Steamboat’s environmental efforts.
“It costs a penny to make the bag and 17 cents to recycle it, because they have to be handled by hand,” Dellinger said. “People don’t really know that you can’t recycle them with the commingled stuff : If we could stop the manufacturing of the bags, it could save the recycling.”
The San Francisco Chronicle recently cited the following startling figures from the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and the Worldwatch Institute:
n 180 million plastic shopping bags are distributed in San Francisco each year
n Between four and five trillion nondegradable plastic bags are used worldwide annually
n It takes 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million nondegradable plastic bags
“What it takes in petroleum use to make these polyethylene plastic bags, and the cost to discard these bags, begs the larger question: what are we going to do about the hazards and the environmental adverse effects of these plastic bags?” San Francisco County Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said to National Public Radio in March.
But in a July 2 story in the Washington Post, Safeway spokesman Gregory TenEyck said alternatives to plastic bags could use more fossil fuels, not less.
“It’s not a slam dunk, environmentally,” TenEyck said. “The choice of paper versus plastic is not one that is one-sided.”
TenEyck said it takes about seven trucks to carry the same amount of paper bags as one truckload of plastic bags.
In the same Post article, an environmental official says paper bag manufacturers “generate 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.”
“We’re opposed to the proposal primarily because our customers appreciate the convenience of carrying home groceries in plastic bags,” TenEyck said of the debate in Annapolis. “I think most people would be very opposed to this concept. You can carry a lot more groceries a lot more conveniently in plastic bags.”
But the problem might not be the first use. The problem is what people do with the bags after carrying groceries into the kitchen.
“I’ve been picking bags out of the river and out of the creeks lately,” Dellinger said. “I’m just tired of picking them up. They’re everywhere.”
Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord plans to meet this week with a San Francisco environmental official who is passing through Steamboat to discuss plastic bag bans and alternatives such as bags made of canvas or biodegradable materials.
Dellinger said whether to apply the ban to small businesses has yet to be decided, given possible financial impacts.
“I’m kind of hoping we can do it for everybody, but we’ll see,” she said.
Meanwhile, I’m keeping my plastic bags under the sink. Maybe they can fend off the potatoes.