Bag the Plastic

Discussion
Oct 31, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Ireland’s success in using a tax to reduce the impact of plastic shopping bags on the Republic’s environment has led many national and local governments around the world to consider imposing tariffs of their own.


While Ireland’s tax has been a success in reducing the number of plastic bags found in landfills and along the road while simultaneously generating funds for environmental programs, there are other private means of achieving many of the same benefits, writes Dan Magestro, a postdoctoral research associate in the physics department at Ohio State University, in the student publication The Lantern.


For those who may believe that plastic bags are not an issue of concern, the writer points to Environmental Protection Agency numbers showing 1.63 million tons of plastic bags making their way into landfills in 2003 alone.


Still, with considerably more landfill space than the Republic of Ireland, is there really reason for consumers, businesses or government to be concerned over the buildup of plastic bags?


The author clearly believes so and, while not a substantive part of his argument, a lead-in sentence suggests another reason consumer and retailers should opt for something other than plastic. “For one thing,” he writes, “a typical plastic bag gets its start in a Middle East oil field.”


Rather than waiting on governments to impose taxes to reduce the use of plastic bags, Mr. Magestro believes that retailers can make an immediate impact on the problem. Using Wal-Mart as an example, he writes the company could “single-handedly change wasteful habits in our shopping routine. A five-cent per bag charge company-wide would do more immediate good than any legislation.”


Moderator’s Comment: Would most American consumers support a retailer charging an extra per bag fee for plastic or paper bags? If a retailer were to
consider such an initiative, how would they sell it to consumers? Is there another option other than high-density polypropylene bags for retailers?

George Anderson – Moderator

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16 Comments on "Bag the Plastic"


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Tom Bales
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Tom Bales
15 years 4 months ago
As a bachelor, and probably what many would consider a somewhat lazy if not exactly frugal one, I reuse the plastic grocery bags I lug home from the market. I use them for trash bags on a daily basis which I realize doesn’t keep them out of landfills but the alternative to that is just another form of plastic bag anyway. I also use them for bagging aluminum cans and plastic bottles for the recycling center which has them winding up in a place where some actual use might be made of them. Perhaps recycling centers might consider offering a small per pound bounty on these little buggers along with those offered for other forms of plastic and for aluminum. They could then be baled and sold back to the bag manufacturers or other users of plastic materials. Believe it or not, there are solutions to problems that don’t involve taxes or added charges for the consumer and if there is even a small reward attached to the efficient use and disposal of these items,… Read more »
Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
15 years 4 months ago
Great responses! Could I raise some of the assumptions it seems we are making and ask for comment? – “We will not tolerate being asked to pay for something we used to get for free.” What is behind this? Is it always true? — Are there any instances where we do tolerate this or even feel it is the right thing to do? – “The most prominent factor here is people being asked to pay more.” Doesn’t this imply that we are mostly driven by financial issues? And if it does suggest this, are we really so Pavlovian, so one-dimensional? Are there times when we are driven (as a mass or as a society) by ideals or higher principles? If so, could these be used in this whole problem somehow? – The description of Ireland’s experience seems to suggest that “charging a fee for bags reduces their use their mis-use (discarding them negligently).” How are these bags actually used after they are brought home? Thrown away empty? Thrown away as not-full-enough garbage bags? Do we… Read more »
Ron Bruce
Guest
Ron Bruce
15 years 4 months ago

The Superstore grocery chain in Canada has been charging for plastic bags for years. The only complaint I can see is that they are of low quality and a little small. They are recyclable and reusable which offsets peoples concern about price. There is something about being environmentally conscientious that helps sell plastic bags.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

I think retailers would love charging for bags; both paper and plastic. The result would be less effective for the environment and better for the profitability for retailers, though.

In the end, what the consumer wants is an effective way to transport their goods home. Convincing them that they are paying for what they get today and convincing them to shift their habits wouldn’t be easy. A tax would result in considerable push back. However, I think there are some possibilities to create loyalty here.

Think of them. Create the best solution. Then you may have something. However, unless you create a value here for the consumer, you’ll likely face stiff opposition in any other alternative.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
I’d like to toss in a couple of alternative ways of dealing with this issue. The supermarket where I most frequently shop gives away thin plastic bags for groceries but sells heavy duty, re-usable bags for a small fee and calls them Bags for Life because once they start to wear out, you can replace them for free for the rest of your life. Each bag actually lasts a very long time and carries quite a lot; replacing it when it does get worn, at no extra charge, is a fairly good incentive. Secondly, when introducing hand scanners to branches, two or three re-usable fabric bags are handed over. These last indefinitely and are absolutely wonderful. Couldn’t be sturdier, fairly attractive and I have seen them being used at farmers’ markets as well, so good for some extra advertising. Recycling and saving the planet may or may not appeal widely and paying for plastic bags may not appeal at all but saving money by using re-usable bags and reducing the amount/cost of packaging is far… Read more »
harold greene
Guest
harold greene
15 years 4 months ago

It might fit the ‘psychographics’ of the Whole Foods and health food store customers. A space efficient reusable alternative bag would need to be a significant part of any test program. While I am generally anti-regulation, I do have a strong ‘user pays’ inclination. The cost for the space, breakdown, and clean-up should be born by the user, so I would personally be in favor of a tax that is enumerated to the customer. To answer the question posed — no, the preponderance of Americans would strongly oppose.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 4 months ago
Again in this space, allow me to mention that plastic bags are made mostly from petroleum (and recycled products as much as possible), as are blow-molded milk jugs and much of the plastic packaging in other food products. I maintain that retailers seeking to reduce their dependence on crude oil must also look in these areas. Paper bags cost retailers roughly a nickel. Plastic, a penny. That’s why they encourage their use. Charging shoppers a nickel for plastic bags is silly – since the crude oil and recycling problems persist. Charging 4¢ for paper bags, on the other hand (5¢ per bag minus 1¢ retailers already spend on plastic bags), makes more sense if you can’t figure out any other way to offset this expense. A question that occurs to me is about the process used by European retailers to charge for bags. In the stores in which you and I shop, the POS process is usually finished well before the groceries are bagged. What would our stores do, count the bags in the cart… Read more »
Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
Guest
Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
15 years 4 months ago
No one is looking for an extra tax. There is a local government battle going on right now in the Bay area where they are still trying to get a $0.17 tax on paper and plastic bags in San Fransisco (but it has not passed yet?). The “Greenies” are continuing to push paper over plastic but both have their place and there are arguements for both sides. The new driving force is on sustainability — the new environmental issue. This platform is gaining lots of momentum and it is a lot about renewable resources. We will see more of this in the future. In fact, Wal-Mart just comitted to using biopolymers (Polylactic Acid) from Cargill’s Nature Works Division for their fruit and vegetable trays. A key piece of the rationale was based on PLA being made from corn. If retailers could develop a sustainable packaging fund that went to support improved sustainability practices — I think it could work. It would not be easy but we need to continue to look to new opportunities and… Read more »
Mark Wright
Guest
Mark Wright
15 years 4 months ago

No way the majority of people are going to sit still and willingly pay for something they now get for free, no matter how much some “expert” tries to convince them is it for the greater good.

Rather than add another “tax” (by any other name it still smells as bad) we just need to provide another viable recycling option. As others have stated, the bags in our house don’t go from store to counter to trash – they make a multitude of stops along the way, and the ones that are left are taken to the local grocery store’s bag recycling bin (where, in reality, they probably go straight to the dumpster!).

I spent many years in the supply buying business, and the propaganda on both sides (Save a Tree! We’re running out of landfill space!) is still apparently flowing at full force.

George Anderson
Guest
George Anderson
15 years 4 months ago

Consumers are already paying for the bags they get at stores. Their cost is factored into the prices consumes pay for products. Having a per bag charge would only make it more transparent.

nelda jacobs
Guest
nelda jacobs
15 years 4 months ago

Could it be optional? Why can’t the people that want to pay for paper be allowed to do so? The majority of people are not willing to pay for paper, but I would be.

David Livingston
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

In my opinion, most people in the USA probably do think of plastic bags as being an alarming issue. It would be like charging for a cup at McDonalds or being required to bring in your own. Americans won’t go for it. What do the Irish line their trash cans with? How do they dispose of dog waste? Maybe I don’t want to know.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
This was a hot issue about 20 years ago, and there were many consumer surveys done at the time. The word then was: no way. I do not suspect things have changed. Funny thing is that plastic bags are the whipping boy, when for sheer volume, paper bags, used diapers and grass clippings are way up higher on the list. And what people don’t realize is that in our modern landfills, things just don’t biodegrade. You can dig up 20- and 30-year old carrots, snap them apart, and they’re orange inside. Paper grocery bags don’t decay in landfills for many, many years. You can read decades-old newspapers and phone books that have been buried long ago, essentially hermetically sealed. (When researchers study landfills, boring down deep, they can tell what year they’ve reached by inspecting the phone books that have been discarded). Sad thing is, that in 1960, the average person disposed of 2.7 pounds of garbage a day; in 2000, it was up to an average of 4.4 pounds a day. As usual, we… Read more »
Carol Spieckerman
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

I’m not so sure that charging for plastic would bring on mass revolt….

In packaging studies that my firm has conducted, we found that women in particular have a real issue with excess packaging, many come up with all kinds of alternative uses for plastic grocery bags, juvenile products zipper bags (those that hold anything from socks to head supports), etc. They really believe that it is their duty to do so. The unintended side-effect may be that consumers then give themselves permission to pile on the plastic/over-use because they “paid for it!”

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

There used to be a low-end closeout warehouse called “Spags” near Boston, which had a slogan something like, “There are no bags at Spags.” People packed their purchases in leftover cartons or brought shopping bags of their own. The policy emphasized the low prices and low overhead. Unless several major retailers all started charging for bags at the same time, the first to do so would get some positive feedback mixed with a barrage of anger at the checkout. They could try to sell inexpensive reusable totes (similar to IKEA, for example) but the anger would be huge, unless the policy was entirely customer-optional. If the customers were told that the money for bags was going to a great charity, there might be less anger, but the policy would still have to be optional, or the anger would be memorable.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
15 years 4 months ago

Aldi has been charging for years in Europe. People just grew up with it and take it in stride. If you try to do that on a widespread basis in the U.S., you’re flirting with danger. People are starting to rebel against all the extra costs that are being levied on them. To start charging them for bags would raise some hackles. You could do it in ultra-liberal environments like Berkeley, California where consumers — high income ones especially — are more environmentally aware. Do it in the New York market and you’re doomed.

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