Put aside, for a moment, the real and sweeping negative environmental impacts stemming from single-use plastic bags most commonly found in grocery stores. Hit pause, too, on dissecting the proposed legislation that two Washington state lawmakers want to pursue to ban usage.
Let’s first take issue with plastic bags’ functionality … or lack thereof.
These crinkly, see-through sheets of flimsy polyethylene, in many cases, barely can hold up for a single use. The edge of, say, a corn flakes box can easily pierce the bag’s gossamer-like exterior as you walk to your car, sending items careening over the parking lot, cantaloupes and soup cans making a break for it. Safely in one’s trunk, the bags’ floppy lack of reinforcement can sometimes send groceries flying with every turn, leading to the minor annoyance of re-bagging once home.
So, plastic bags: Good riddance. Who needs them?
Now consider the deleterious effects single-use plastic bags have on the environment — clogging landfills, swirling in oceans, lakes and rivers, stuck in storm drains and lining our interstate highway system — and ask yourself this: Is it really worth it, on libertarian consumer-choice grounds, to reject a ban on single-use plastic bags?
Think of it as a case of enlightened self-interest: We make the adjustment of a one-time purchase of cotton or nylon reusable bags that cause us less hassle than plastic --or pay a nominal fee at the checkout line to use paper bags -- and we help stem the proliferation of plastic refuse in oceans that, by 2040, could exceed fish, pound for pound, according to researchers.
Where’s the downside? Critics have a point that making people pay for reusable bags and fork over a dime for paper bags will be felt most by lower-income residents, of whom the Yakima Valley has many. But the two Democratic lawmakers backing the proposed bill — Rep. Strom Peterson of Edmonds and Sen. Kevin Rankin of Orcas Island — say they plan to craft the legislation so that those on food stamps or other assistance programs will not have to pay for paper bags.
Furthermore, the industry — the Northwest Grocery Association, as well as Safeway and Wray’s Marketfresh IGA — largely supports trashing plastic. (Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer, has already vowed to voluntarily wean itself from plastic bags in all stores by 2025.) From a business standpoint, grocers want a statewide policy to make it easier to comply and to create a level playing field for all competitors. Currently, there are scattered pockets of municipalities that have imposed bans, some 23 different policies throughout the state, according to the NGA.
“It is much easier for those retailers that operate in all 39 counties across the state to have one expectation of how they’re going to handle those bags,” Holly Chisa, an NGA lobbyist, told reporters last week when the two lawmakers unveiled their plan.
Big cities, such as Seattle and Tacoma, and smaller towns, such as Port Townsend and Bellingham, have instituted plastic bag bans, as have Thurston and San Juan counties. No community east of the Cascades has done so — though Ellensburg has taken baby steps by placing a 5-cent tax on plastic bags — highlighting once more the ideological divide between west- and east-siders.
Some plastic-bag supporters say that the public needs to be better educated about recycling the bags at grocery stores. But even if an even greater awareness campaign started, the public probably won’t respond. Every year in the state, 2 billion plastic bags are handed out; only 5 percent of those are recycled. Even in environmental-conscious Seattle, only 13 percent of plastic bags are recycled.
Though attempts to institute a plastics ban have failed in previous legislative sessions, most notably in 2012, in the upcoming session, Democrats will have a firmer majority in both chambers and an advocate in the governor’s office. And with Gov. Jay Inslee seemingly wanting to burnish his environmental credentials for a possible run at the presidency in 2020, expect a big push for the proposed bill in 2019. In other words, plastic-bag proponents may not have a choice in the matter, though they might use what influence they wield to ensure that low-income residents aren’t overly burdened.
Regardless of politicking, the environmental concerns should be top of mind. No less than seven environmental groups have endorsed the idea, speaking passionately about how plastic bags not only suffocate marine life in the ocean but affect humans. The bags break down into “microplastics” that have shown up in water samples of the Puget Sound watershed and in fish that we eat.
Two other states, California and Hawaii, have statewide bans in place. Both states report no persistent opposition — just a few initial grumblings in some quarters — and say that pollution cleanup figures show that plastic-bag litter has decreased by about 70 percent along the coast and at rivers.
As much as we might hope that consumer interest alone — the mighty influence of market forces — might spark consumers to wean themselves from using plastic bags, sometimes a little legislative nudge is needed. This seems one of those times.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.