Convenience of plastic bags comes at cost bigger than tax

Published: Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.

On a cool spring morning not long ago I left my hotel near the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and set off at a brisk pace down Connecticut Avenue toward Dupont Circle.

D.C. is one of my favorite walking-around cities, despite an infestation problem (it's lousy with politicians; more irritating than no-see-ums and you can't spray for 'em).

On the way back I stopped at a small wine shop to pick up a bottle for our hotel room.

The guy at the counter asked me if I wanted a bag. And without really thinking about it I grunted my assent.

Then he pushed the unbagged booze toward me.

“I said I wanted a bag,” I told him, not wishing to stroll back up Connecticut, naked bottle in hand, looking like some sort of derelict.

“You said you didn't want a bag,” he snorted.

“Well I do.”

“Then I need a nickel,” he said.

That's when it hit me.

This wasn't just a transaction.

It was one of those save-the-Earth moments. And I had dropped the ball.

D.C. is one of a handful of American cities that tax plastic bags to discourage shoppers from using them.

As taxes go, this is one of the kiss-your-sister variety.

Having it on the books is a nice statement about how green D.C. is. But it's not really steep enough to deter many customers (like me, sad to admit) from choosing plastic in a pinch.

Obviously the deterrent effect is stronger in, say, Ireland, with a 30-cents-per-bag tax. Not to mention in the growing number of cities around the world that have simply banned plastic bag use.

Heck, this past session somebody even introduced a bill in the Florida Legislature to let local governments tax plastic bags. But it died in the ironically named Environment, Preservation and Conservation Committee.

You see, taxes give legislators a bad case of indigestion. Worse even than pelicans and seagulls get from swallowing the plastic bags that get washed out to sea.

There is also a bill before Congress to impose a D.C.-style nickel-a-bag tax nationally. The chemical industry lobby is fighting it, which is no big surprise.

Americans run through about 100 billion petroleum-based bags every year. They may be bad for the environment but they are good for somebody's bottom line.

Some of those plastic bags get buried in our landfills. Others litter the roadsides or are washed into sewers, rivers and streams. Eventually many end up at sea, where they play havoc with bird and marine species and mess up the food chain.

They also form the bulk of massive, swirling floating islands of debris, called “gyres,” in virtually all of the world's oceans.

“Gyres are loosely-defined expanses the size of continents,” explains the online E-The Environmental Magazine. “And, plastics are in no way confined to gyres, but amassing throughout marine environments as diverse as shoreline mangroves and the Arctic seafloor.”

All of which has given rise to some ambitious big-engineering schemes involving skimmer ships designed to recapture floating plastics. Perhaps the sodden stuff might even be recycled into something really useful ... like petroleum.

This seems the very definition of a fool's errand, given the vast expanse of the oceans and the seemingly never-ending stream of new plastic wastes that we keep pouring into the briny blue.

Imagine that: For the thoughtless convenience of toting our groceries in cheap little plastic bags we are willing to destroy other species and lay waste to our oceans.

Makes you wonder if there is any hope at all for the human race.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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