Wednesday February 05, 2014 | 10:55 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

As the Press Herald reported on January 28, the city of Portland is considering a 10-cent fee on disposable shopping bags.

No surprise, the issue is contentious. The plastic bag industry and its supporters have rolled out the usual bromides about “government intrusion,” “education,” and “recycling.”

These arguments are all baseless, in this writer’s opinion.

Education? Who needs to be educated not to toss a plastic bag on the ground? Of those souls who somehow don’t get this, how many will “education” reach?

Recycling? Really? Those plastic bags fouling gutters, trees, curbs, parks, playgrounds, streams, rivers, the ocean -- they blow out of recycling bins as easily as trash cans. Out of recycling trucks as easily as trash trucks. Out of car windows, truck beds, picnic baskets. Out of the hands of someone who recycles as easily as out of the hands of someone who doesn’t. 

Regarding recycling, dig deeper. How many recycled bags actually get made into new bags? Plastic grocery bags are dirty -- they come in contact with food particles, grease, oils, soil, dust. Cleaning bag plastic enough to reuse legally in a new bag is hard, expensive, and rare. Ask the industry specifically how many actual “recycled” plastic grocery bags get made into new grocery bags. See if they have a number. See who wants that material and what they’ll pay for it.


Plastic bags in California facility waiting & waiting for a buyer
Photo credit: SLO County IWMA, Source

Plastic bag debris isn’t a problem of education or recycling. It’s one of poor design. A tiny, flimsy bag that can blow away with the slightest breeze (we’ve all had it happen) -- made out of material that will persist for centuries in the environment? A terrible idea, and truly stupid design.

But the silliest argument to me is government intrusion and an unfair tax. Right now every one of us is paying the cost of “free” plastic bags. Cleanup costs, recycling facility damage/slowdowns, reduced property value from blight, unsightly views, death to wild creatures that we claim to love. All of us are paying for that -- whether or not we use plastic bags.

Worse, for every bag we pay to clean up, many more never get cleaned up. That’s a cost that we’re not even paying yet. But our kids and grandkids will. What will they think about our “freedom”?

There’s one reason the bag industry hates bag fees. They work. In Washington, DC a 5-cent fee has reduced use by between 67 and 80%. In Wales, a 5p fee reduced single-use grocery bag use by 96%!

The tiniest of fees reminds shoppers that we have a choice. And that all choices have consequences. That’s something the bag industry very much would like us to forget. Don’t let them.

Check out this well-researched fact sheet on plastic bag litter and fight the spin.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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