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Bag Ban Boom

Governments increasingly looking to limit carryout bags.

From Polynesian paradises to the Blue Ridge Mountains, bag bans are starting to pile up.

In the past month California’s Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, passed an ordinance that prohibits free distribution of single-use bags at checkout in stores that sell packaged food.

Further west, the Big Island of Hawaii adopted a ban on plastic checkout bags, following the lead of two other Hawaiian islands. And the state legislature is considering at least two statewide bag ban bills.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia legislature proposed a plastic bag tax of 5 cents on grocery stores, drug stores and convenience stores for each plastic bag given to customers, according to House Bill (H.B.) 2136.

These developments come a month after Seattle passed a ban on plastic retail carryout bags and Austin, Texas, proposed one.

The environmental group Californians Against Waste reported that with the Alameda move, 29 California cities and counties have a bag ordinance. The group estimated that the plastic bag recycling rate in California is about 4 percent, despite a report claiming an hefty recycling increase (See “Rally ‘Round the Bag, Boys,” on page 11.)

In Alameda County, retailers have to charge a minimum of 10 cents per bag to provide recycled content paper or reusable bags, according to a county news release. The Alameda County Waste Management Authority said it adopted the ordinance to reduce waste and litter, stimulate the local economy and create jobs. Individual jurisdictions may opt out.

The Hawaiian Island ordinance will take effect Jan. 18, 2013, and affects only bags sold at the counter, says Hunter Bishop, deputy director for the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management, in an interview.

It comes after bans on plastic checkout bags took effect Jan. 11 on Maui and Kauai islands and counties. As with the Big Island, those Hawaiian counties also encompass the islands.

On Hawaii Island, businesses can make plastic checkout bags available for purchase for one calendar year after the law takes effect. It would be up to the individual retailer whether to charge a fee and how much, Bishop says.

“The purpose of this article is to reduce the use of plastic bags and to encourage the use of environmentally preferable alternatives, such as reusable bags,” according to the bill.

Both laws in Maui and Kauai allow retailers to provide recycled-content paper or reusable bags.

Statewide, Hawaii H.B. 1828 would impose a tax of 20 cents on each plastic checkout bag given to a customer. H.B. 2260 calls for a fee of 10 cents on all single-use plastic and paper bags.

There are a lot of reasons for the increased legislative activity, says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association.

“It’s pretty easy to see plastic bag litter when you’re outside,” he says. “There’s a perception that … they’re a major littering problem.”  There also has been a lot of publicity about the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, which allegedly includes a lot of bags.

“It’s certainly touched a very responsive public chord,” Miller says.

But it continues to be a contentious issue, with industry fighting the moves, as well as consumers “who happen to find plastic bags easy to use,” says Miller.

The bans take many forms. Many of the bans focus on plastic as opposed to paper, but not all of them. Miller says arguments continue as to which material causes less long-term harm to the environment. All the bans have exemptions for carrying out produce.

The bag ban trend is likely to continue, Miller says.  “I think you’re going to see more of these local initiatives.”

And some of the reason for that, he adds, is self-interest on the part of governments and politicians.

“For a lot of legislators, by voting to ban or tax plastic bags they can look like stewards of the environment,” Miller says. “If you’re government, if you’re looking for quick money, go slap a fee on packaging. You may or may not dedicate it to an environmental fund, but you just got yourself some more money, all in the guise of doing good.”

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