04/09/2012 01:50 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Corvallis City Council Should Implement Plastic Bag Ban

This June, the Corvallis City Council will decide whether to implement a possible plastic bag ban. The city can go a number of different routes.

The city may ban "single-use" plastic bags at checkout in retail stores and impose a paper bag fee at grocery stores, not including produce, meat or deli item wrapping bags or businesses with fewer than 25 employees. They may ban just plastic bags, but have a pass-through fee on paper bags. Or, they may institute a voluntary education program focused on the effects of plastic and encourage the use of re-useable bags instead.

While the majority of the populace may not feel or see the effects of plastic disposal -- or lack thereof -- in the environment, a ban on plastic bags should not be taken as an irrelevant or unfounded conclusion to a seemingly trivial, undiagnosed and unimportant issue; the cause has reason.

The proper way to mitigate this environmental intrusion and reduce the use of plastic in society is an absolute ban on plastic bags, with a pass-through fee for paper bags. This is the most cost-effective and less intrusive option in solving such an issue. Corvallis should support a plastic ban proposal, at least in this manner.

First, the actual effects of plastic in the environment are suspect at best. To the average citizen, proper disposal essentially means putting the plastic in a recyclable bin and turning away for the waste company to deal with. A more prudent individual may take the necessary steps to dispose of the plastic in a specific container or area, such as the First Alternative Co-op's recycling center.

But the environmental toll of plastic begins at production, not (improper) disposal. According to Scientific American, nearly 8 percent of the world oil production goes into making plastic -- a substantial demand for a fleeting product, at least in use.

In fact, plastic is anything but fleeting. According to the EPA, plastic litter -- depending on the type -- can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Scientists are still relatively uncertain on the timeframe for decomposition of plastic bags, as temperature and soil conditions can affect the rate, but plastic-anything is not a compostable product; our sewers, coastlines and ocean speak to the permanent nature of plastic. And the EPA estimates fewer than 5 percent of all plastic bags in the United States are recycled, at least in disposal, not considering reuse. The situation isn't getting better.

However, besides the environmental toll, which is the cause of the issue, the real topic of discussion is the subsequent effect: the cost, both for the retailers and the consumer.

Plastic bags are certainly not a luxury, but they are a privilege. Consumers aren't getting an additional tax per bag they use at a grocery store, nor is the store requiring them to bring back the bags for reuse next time. It would then seem the retailer is in fact spending money on the consumer in providing these bags, despite how cheap they may be to produce.

Therefore, requiring an additional fee upon checkout for plastic bag use -- particularly a fee that would go back to the retailer, preferably for donation purposes afterwards -- only affects the consumer. This ideally would mean less plastic bag use, or at least more re-use of said bags.

However, this does not directly influence the decisions of the retailers. Hence, the pass-through fee on paper bags -- which are more expensive than plastic bags -- would make up for the transition and requirement on not providing the cheaper plastic alternative. It would not be a dramatic or burdensome transition for businesses.

For example, here in Corvallis, Market of Choice already uses bio-degradable plastic and paper bags, Trader Joe's uses paper bags and First Alternative only offers paper bags, with a per bag fee of five cents. It would seem, especially here in Corvallis, a ban on plastic bags is nothing new, nor strenuous.

If anything, a fee on a paper bags at checkout is only paying for a product the retailer has already purchased. While it was free in the past, only a cost to the retailer, the pass-through fee would now make the consumer seriously consider the costs of such luxuries, if they can be so called. And that is the point of the ban: to make the consumer change habits.

Of course, five or so cents per bag isn't a considerable amount, but it is an amount nonetheless. Any additional costs always put a heavier burden on the economically less fortunate among us -- the real problem with such proposals.

But unlike other cases that adversely affect the poor -- such as paying for health care or opting to go without and expensive "healthy" food versus cheap fast food -- the alternative option, and solution in this case, is not any more expensive than the penalty. Purchasing a re-useable cloth bag costs no more than a few dollars, at most. Many stores hand out free bags for promotional services -- think of Dex, the phone book service, which hands out a free tote bag every year.

Moreover, even opting out of purchasing a re-useable cloth bag does not mean the consumer will be penalized each and every time they decide to use plastic; once they purchase a plastic bag, they are welcome to reuse it the next time. One of the main disagreements with a plastic ban proposal is that consumers already reuse the bags for a number of things around the home and for other shopping uses. And if this is the case, then a ban -- i.e., an additional fee on using a bag -- should not adversely affect the consumer, or at least cost them any more money than they already spend on grocery services.

The Corvallis community ethic obviously fits the bill for a plastic bag ban, something other cities may not be so welcoming of. One may debate how important it is to address the plastic pollution, but one thing is clear: A ban won't hurt anybody.

Editorials serve as a means for Barometer editors to offer commentary and opinions on issues both global and local, grand in scale or diminutive. The views expressed here are a reflection of the editorial board's majority.

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