Paper or plastic? Consumers are accustomed to having that choice at retail and grocery store checkout lines. And as we consider the options, a little voice tells us that paper is better — and that it’s even better to reject both. Why not bring your own reusable cloth bag from home? That’s the way to save a tree and keep more nondegradable plastic out of the landfill.
But what if “plastic’’ was no longer a choice? In the interest of environmental protection and reducing waste, it’s smart to consider restricting the use of plastic bags.
To start the conversation in Minneapolis, City Council Member Cam Gordon plans to introduce at the Aug. 7 council meeting a reasonable plan for plastic and paper bags.
Modeled after a Seattle ordinance, Gordon’s proposal would prohibit stores from packing up purchases in plastic bags and would require retailers to impose a 5-cent fee for paper bags. Some plastic packaging, such as newspaper and bread bags, would be exempt. The city already has banned foam takeout containers, and adding plastic bag restrictions would help the city reach its zero-waste goals.
An estimated 200 U.S. communities and some countries already ban the bags. Some cities without complete bans, such as Dallas and Washington, D.C., require shoppers to pay 5 cents for both paper and plastic bags. Two of California’s largest cities — San Francisco and Los Angeles — adopted bans, and the state followed their lead last year. The California ban was supposed to go into effect in July, but implementation is on hold after bag manufacturers successfully lobbied to place the measure on the November 2016 ballot.
Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year. And in Minnesota, along with wrappers and shrink wrap, the bags accounted for about 192,600 tons of statewide trash in 2013, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Some Minneapolis retailers have expressed legitimate concerns about a city-only plan, arguing that a statewide solution would be the best way to keep shoppers from simply crossing a city border to avoid the ban. Other stores have said their costs would increase because they pay more for paper than plastic, and that increase likely would result in higher prices. It’s also worth noting that paper bags take more energy to produce.
Those concerns need a full airing, but they do not negate the need to reduce plastic bag use. Without question, the bags have morphed into an environmental hazard. Like polystyrene foam (commonly known as Styrofoam), most are not biodegradable and will stay in landfills for decades or centuries.
Gordon’s proposal starts an important environmental discussion in Minneapolis. Because of the widespread impact on consumers and business, however, it’s a discussion that needs to proceed with caution.