Paper or Pollution?

In July 2014, an ordinance went into effect in Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, and incorporated Thurston County banning stores from giving out single use plastic bags. In­stead, stores were mandated to charge at least 5 cents for paper carryout bags. The theory behind the ban is that it will encourage the public to bring re­usable grocery bags.

The goal of the ordinance? Reduce plastic waste and the improper dis­posal of plastic bags, which end up clogging waterways and endangering sea life. Millions of pounds of trash float endlessly in the Pacific Ocean and get trapped in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The problem is so endemic, there is a section of the Pacific Ocean that essentially func­tions as a dump. This is the result of the tide of consumerism gripping the United States, a waste pit of harmful plastics. Our used and unwanted re­fuse ends up in a giant conglomeration of waste in the middle of the Pacific.

Full disclosure: I was against this ordinance. I live in Tumwater and commute to campus. Had you asked me a year ago, I would have spoken vehemently against a plastic bag ban. I hated the idea. Why should I be pun­ished because plastic bags are a drain on the environment? What could my one county do to ebb the flow of plas­tics into landfills and oceans? I heard plenty of arguments that cited the environmental concerns of reusable bag manufacturing and the unlikeli­hood of people actually recycling pa­per bags as reasons why these types of bans are ineffective. I watched a con­servative pundit talk about how these types of bans have a larger net negative effect on poor populations because 5 cents means more to them than it might to you and me. I was also an­noyed by the hassle and inconvenience of having to remember to have bags or be forced to pay 5 cents for a small paper bag that might fit only a tiny amount of groceries.

It is now nine months later. What has been the effect of the ban on my life? Aside from a permanent stash of reusable bags purchased at Fred Mey­er stuffed in my trunk, nothing has changed. My shopping patterns re­main the same. The only difference is that those shopping patterns are now much more green. Instead of using 10-20 plastic bags (because double bagging is somehow still a thing) for a single grocery trip, I am using zero. That’s right! None. No plastic! And I noticed everyone else is using zero plastic as well. That means signifi­cantly less plastic waste is ending up in our landfills, in our waterways, on our beaches, and in our oceans.

Despite this positive outcome, many people are still opposed to or­dinances like the one adopted in my city. The Sustainable Tacoma Com­mission is currently considering a single use bag ban to take effect some­time this summer. However, websites like BagtheBan.com are taking a firm stance against plastic bag bans because “Bag bans and taxes don’t actually re­duce litter or protect the environment. Plus, they force consumers to use reus­able bags, which can carry foodborne illnesses [sic].” The claims of naysayers like BagtheBan.com don’t take into account the thousands of pounds of plastic that accumulates in landfills and recycling centers because they cannot be sold or reused. In contrast, reusable bags are as cheap as $1 and many stores offer incentives for bring­ing your own bags. Target offers a five cent discount for every reusable bag you bring into the store that leaves bearing their merchandise. As for the claim that reusable bags carry food­borne illnesses, hand washing and using a single bag for all meat pur­chases can limit the very small risk of food contamination.

Ultimately, the city of Tacoma needs to decide what is more impor­tant: convenience or ensuring a clean­er world for future generations. While bag bans like the one in Thurston County are not a perfect solution to the enormous problems plaguing our oceans and climate, they are a small step in the right direction.

What can you do UW Tacoma? Write a letter to your congressman or woman letting them know you support a plastic bag ban. Sign a petition. Be proactive and start carrying reusable bags now before the ban. Do your part to make this world better, cleaner, and healthier this Earth Day and every day.