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A Middle Ground In The Bag Wars

The San Jose City Council is considering a proposal to ban plastic bags and most paper bags in supermarkets, out of concerns about the greenhouse gases used to manufacture them and about the waste from discarded bags.  But this policy might create as many environmental problems as it solves. 

In a city without disposable bags, shoppers who seek to buy large amounts of groceries will have to drag around an army of nondisposable containers.  For drivers, this is not a big deal.  Susie SUV can always find  space for dozens of nondisposable bags in her truck.  And because Susie’s bags can stay in her truck forever, she will always be able to make impulse purchases without difficulty.

Michael Lewyn | September 24, 2009, 1pm PDT
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The San Jose City Council is considering a proposal to ban plastic bags and most paper bags in supermarkets, out of concerns about the greenhouse gases used to manufacture them and about the waste from discarded bags.  But this policy might create as many environmental problems as it solves. 

In a city without disposable bags, shoppers who seek to buy large amounts of groceries will have to drag around an army of nondisposable containers.  For drivers, this is not a big deal.  Susie SUV can always find  space for dozens of nondisposable bags in her truck.  And because Susie's bags can stay in her truck forever, she will always be able to make impulse purchases without difficulty.

But pedestrian shoppers will have more trouble dragging around an armada of bags – both because a pedestrian cannot carry as many bags as an SUV, and because a pedestrian may not always know in advance when he/she wants to go shopping. 

So in a "no disposables" city, shopping (especially for a family) becames a hassle for pedestrians.  If a pedestrian wishes to shop, he/she must limit purchases to the amount of groceries that will fit into the bags he/she can carry to the grocery store, and must remember to bring those bags to the store. Thus, an anti-disposables law widens the "convenience gap" between drivers and pedestrians.  (And given the amount of hurdles that car-dependent North America creates for pedestrians, do we really need one more?)

It follows that such laws give consumers yet another incentive to drive rather than walk to the grocery store- or even to drive if there is an outside chance she may wish to go shopping.   Thus, a complete ban on bags encourages driving, which in turn increases greenhouse emissions and a wide variety of other environmental ills.

Does this mean that municipalities must choose between pollution from cars and pollution from bags?  Not necessarily.  Toronto has created a middle ground in the bag wars, imposing a 5-cent tax on disposable bags- enough to allow nondrivers who really need bags to use them, yet at the same time enough to deter frivolous bag use. 

I have lived in Toronto for three weeks, and find that I still have a few plastic bags (which I recycle by using them as garbage bags) but use far fewer bags than I once did.  I place small purchases in the tote bag that I use for school books, but have the option of purchasing plastic bags when I really need them.  And I still get by without a car. 

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