A Better Bag Ban

As the one year anniversary of Portland’s action to ban plastic checkout bags approaches, it’s a good time to pause and take into account what’s happening around the state as well as revisit the effectiveness of Portland’s ordinance. The city took an important first step in the state of Oregon, ridding the mass consumption, inevitable pollution and waste-stream problems that these pesky plastic bags incur. But did the city go far enough, what are other Oregon cities doing and what’s on the horizon for the state?

Undoubtedly, the City of Portland made huge strides in cutting down on the plastic bag waste-stream, about 8.5 million fewer plastic bags per month, according to a report from just 23 of the 55 major grocers that participated in the Northwest Grocery Association’s 6 month study following the ban. In just six months, in just those subset of stores, we are talking about 52 million bags! This simply just demonstrates the scale of the issue, imagine if all retailers in Portland banned plastic bags!

That seems convincing enough, and the sky certainly didn’t fall after the ban took affect; yet, a closer look into the report demonstrates a slight increase in reusable bag use and a steep increase (nearly 500 percent) in paper. The bag ban in itself while eliminating plastic, was just as important an effort to shift people towards reusables. We applaud the work of the City of Portland, the partnerships and all of the Bring Your Bag” outreach and education work, but we feel we’re still not hitting our ultimate goal through this current policy as the paper bags stack up.

That, and a little nudge from the businesses and grocery association that feels the burden of increased paper bag use, is exactly what put Corvallis and now Eugene on the track for banning plastic bags and requiring a nickel pass through cost for paper bags. Corvallis last week trumped Portland’s ordinance, applying the plastic bag ban to all retailers in the city and requiring a 5 cent pass through cost on paper bags to encourage reusable bags.

Simply put, the pass through cost helps shift consumer behavior. We live in a capitalistic society and decisions consumers make are highly motivated by the dollar. And, it doesn’t take much as we look around to see what other cities are doing. Certainly the path to ban plastic bags was laid in San Francisco, sans fee on paper, but revisiting the policy years later, San Francisco was joined by 40 some cities in California that found the fee necessary based on consumer behaviors. A necessity, but does it really work?

Consider this, in Washington DC a bag fee was placed on plastic bags and the little 5 cents shifted consumers from an estimated 270 million bags per year to 55 million bags per year. The businesses that reported, estimated a range of bag use down by 50%-80%. And that makes good business cents too…nickels add up to business savings and the dramatic decrease in bag use means substantial reduction in overhead costs to businesses.

As Eugene, Ashland, Newport and others in Oregon look to move on the plastic bag issue, we hope they will keep in mind what we’ve learned and what Corvallis took to law last week, plastic bag bans are about shifting consumer behaviors to reusable options. The application to all retailers and the pass through cost on paper are the most effective strategies to do this. It makes good business sense. It makes good environmental sense. With these cities actions in mind and Portland on the cusp of revisiting the ordinance, it’s clear that when Salem fails to act, the citizens will act locally…before you know it, the next legislative session will be underway.

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