The proffered problem with the plastic bags we use to carry home purchases is litter. Fugitive bags are claimed to mar the landscape. Two years ago Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham proposed a fee on use of plastic bags because he’s “fed up with driving down the streets, noticing plastic bags plastered to the needles of what would otherwise be attractive desert plants.” This fee, essentially a tax on food and other items, is supposed to discourage use. It is unclear how a fee would reduce the littering problem because that is, in part, a behavioral problem. The problem is not the number of bags used; it is the manner in which the bags are disposed.
City Councilman Steve Kozachik, in his November 15, 2012 newsletter, noted: “I see far more newspapers, cans and papers blowing around than I see plastic bags hanging from cactus and otherwise trashing the City. There are clearly multiple benefits to encouraging people to clean up their own messes, and to reduce/reuse/recycle. But what was presented to us on Wednesday in the form of a change in our Plastic Bag Ordinance struck me as being an over-reach, possibly counterproductive, and not a burden we need to place on the business community and consumers without first having made a better effort at educating people as to what measures we already have in place to encourage recycling of plastic bags.” Yet, he joined all the other council members in voting to impose such overreach and imposition on local businesses.
Quoting from the Arizona Daily Star, the current quixotic council campaign is to require:
Large retailers in Tucson will soon have to train their clerks and baggers and begin educating the public on ways to reduce plastic bag usage.
The council voted unanimously to amend the city’s plastic bag ordinance in an attempt to better track, and possibly reduce, consumption.
Retailers are now subject to mandatory reporting periods when they must document the average bags used per transaction, the total number of bags handed out and the weight of plastic collected for recycling.
Retail representatives must also meet quarterly with city officials to review the retailers’ progress.
The idea is to collect data over a two-year period and see what a fair reduction goal would be for the city to set for retailers in the future.
In addition to the tracking and training requirements, retailers will have to formulate a public information campaign geared toward “school-age children” and the general public. The campaign must include contests and in-store promotions while incorporating videos and social media.
There are no penalties for not complying with the amended ordinance, which takes effect July 1.
So, we see that the goal of this grand scheme is to collect data that will somehow reduce use of plastic bags. Will that reduce litter? Will businesses comply?
From my observations, some of those fugitive plastic bags fly out of garbage trucks during their trip to the landfill. That could be solved by people using one bag to store other bags to make them less buoyant and less likely to fly out of the trucks. We can also take bags back to the recycling bins in stores from which they are transported to a special recycling plant. Plastic bags cannot be put in Tucson residential recycle bins because the city plant cannot handle them even with “A new state of the art Materials Recovery Facility” to be opened in July.
The current action by the City Council will have little impact on littering and imposes an unnecessary burden on businesses. I would think that businesses already know how many bags they use in a given time period because they have to buy them. The average number of bags used during a transaction is a meaningless statistic. The idea of a public information campaign may have some merit and it should include the options people have for disposal of bags. Perhaps that information could be incorporated into the regular City PSA announcements we see on TV regarding recycling and waste disposal.
The alternative to plastic bags are either paper bags or reusable bags, but these have their own problems:
Some people bring their own reusable bags, especially for groceries. However, bags made from non-woven polypropylene, the most commonly used material in reusable grocery bags, have been shown to contain excessive lead which can pose a danger. Also a study by Canadian microbiologist Dr. Richard Summerbell found that unless you wash reusable fabric grocery bags after each use, they can harbor unacceptably high levels of bacteria, yeast, and mold. “The study found that 64% of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than what’s considered safe for drinking water,” according to the National Post, Canada.
By the way, a British study of all types of bags found that plastic bags were superior because they take less energy and water to make and less energy to recycle, as well as taking up less space in landfills (link).
This make-work city proposal is geared toward solving the wrong problem and will just add to business expense without reducing littering. I repeat: The problem is not the number of bags used; it is the manner in which they are disposed.