by Whit Gibbons

May 2, 2010

I am in favor of a ruling that "businesses that sell food or alcohol must charge you 5 cents for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag." The quote is from a new law in the District of Columbia. We should make it a law throughout the country.

Plastic bags are a scourge on oceans, lakes, and wildlife wherever they end up. Dramatic deaths from the consumption of plastic bags have been reported in leatherback sea turtles, seals, and whales. The bags are swallowed and then clog the digestive system. Plastic bags also cause problems when they are sucked into the cooling intake systems of boats. And the greenish slime that collects on bags as they float just beneath the surface of a lake in a city park is extremely unsightly.

One estimate is that more than a trillion plastic grocery bags are produced every two years, the average term of a state legislator or a U.S. congressman. The United States uses about 1 billion plastic bags each year, or about 10 tons a day. For people concerned about U.S. dependency on foreign oil, please note that more than 10 million barrels of oil are necessary to make enough plastic bags for the United States each year. Obviously, our whole country would benefit from a law requiring business to charge five cents for each disposable bag.

Some countries have already implemented plans to curtail the excessive use of plastic bags. Ireland instituted a personal tax of around 25 cents for the use of a plastic bag and consumption of the bags has decreased by more than 90 percent. The Irish have simply stepped up recycling and found less wasteful ways to carry small items. South Africa has passed legislation to fine retailers who provide unrecyclable plastic bags. Taiwan has regulatory procedures that heavily fine businesses that use disposable plastic bags, resulting in personal recycling of bags and other containers.

Naturally, people have a learning curve for any new regulation; they will also have questions about its implementation. The "Skip the Bag, Save the River" website answers frequently asked questions that have arisen since the law was implemented in January 2010. One of those questions, "How do I avoid paying 5 cents a bag?" has two excellent answers. "You can bring your own disposable or reusable bag to the store or restaurant. . . . You can also choose not to bag your purchase." How simple is that? Of course some people are going to object to a new procedure regardless, like those who are driving out of the District to shop in order to avoid paying for the bags. What a sensible way to save a nickel.

I assume that everyone in America is as confused about economics as I am. But anyone can figure out that if we place a charge on something that does more harm than good, people will find a way not to do it. Many of our environmental problems would be readily solved if we made people pay to pollute. We should allow people to use or even waste all the plastic bags they want, as long as they pay additional local, state, and federal taxes for the privilege. The new money in the treasuries can go to programs to clean up plastic bags locally, nationally, even globally.

I am not in favor of laws that restrict constitutional freedoms. However, a law that curtails the excessive use of an unnecessary product that does horrible damage to the environment and can be easily managed by a little personal frugality seems not just reasonable but obligatory. A two-year term is plenty of time for a member of Congress or a state legislature to garner support for a plastic bag ruling similar to that enacted in the District of Columbia. We need to stop treating our oceans, lakes, and forests like they are garbage cans. It's time for all of us to skip the bag, save the river.

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