Prepare for a summer of energetic debate about plastic bags

Get ready. Athens City Council is poised to consider an ordinance – one that sets fees for using disposable plastic and paper bags at stores in the city – that likely will cook up a hot debate all summer.

As a news editor, I enjoy this sort of thing – a controversy that has consequences for the vast majority of citizens in the community, engages our readers, and generates an entertaining ruckus over a long period of time.

What’s not to like?

Well, actually, citizens find quite a bit not to like judging from the bitter debate that has erupted in other cities, large and small, that have proposed or adopted similar laws. Social media are burning up over the issue, too.

The proposal due for introduction in Athens “in a few weeks” would require stores to charge 10 cents per bag (plastic or paper) whenever shoppers in the city of Athens request them for purchased food and other goods. There would be an exemption for people on public assistance, and the law has an exception for take-out food, meats and produce, among other things.

It wouldn’t be a tax on business technically, since the retailer would keep the money, though the ordinance limits the uses of that money to activities related to the purpose of the law, such as stocking reusable bags. (This seems heavy-handed to me. This law will be a burden to businesses, and their use of the 10 cents a bag shouldn't be second-guessed by city government.)

The obvious goal of the ordinance is to discourage the manufacture and use of plastic and paper bags that harm the environment, both in their disposal and manufacture, a worthy goal.

Consumers instead would use reusable bags – cloth mainly, though presumably reusable plastic bags also would be an option.

Word of this proposed ordinance comes less than a week after the City Council of New York City adopted a similar law in a relatively close 28-20 vote. The law would require retailers in the city (with some exceptions) to collect 5 cents on each carryout bag, whether it’s plastic or paper.

NYC’s original proposal would have charged 10 cents per bag, as is reportedly the case with the proposal for Athens.

According to an Associated Press article published Monday, some 150 other communities in the U.S. have enacted laws that either ban single-use plastic bags or charge a fee for using them. Washington, D.C. is among the largest of such cities.

I'm still working out my own position on Athens adopting a dime-per-bag charge, though I’m leaning toward supporting it. Shopping at the Athens Kroger, I already request paper bags, though occasionally I’ll covet a few plastic bags for cat-litter disposal. If the 10 cents per bag proposal wins approval, less than a dollar would be added to my weekly grocery bill. That's meaningful money to some folks, though the environmental benefits carry value, too. And to be honest, reading up on the subject while writing this column has persuaded me to obtain some cloth bags anyway. 

A May 5 New York Times article about the law passed in that city (but still awaiting the mayor’s signature) included a number of quotes that likely will preview the sort of input that Athens City Council can expect to hear over this proposal (we’re already receiving plenty of feedback on the proposal on our Facebook page).

Here are a few of the New Yorkers' comments:

• “The fee is irritating, which is precisely why it works. We don’t want to pay it so we’ll bring bags instead. So the fact that it’s irritating irritates a lot of people.” – New York City Council member Brad Lander.

• “That’s nothing less than a tax on the poor and the middle class – the most disadvantaged people.” – New York Sen. Simcha Felder, a former member of the New York City Council.

• “I was in Washington, D.C., when the bag fee happened, and you know what? It was to clean up the river. These funds are being dedicated to the pockets of the retailers.” – Bertha Lewis, a social justice activist. She leads a group that reportedly collected thousands of signatures in opposition to the bill and has support from the American Progressive Bag Alliance (a lobbying group for plastic bag manufacturers).

The Associated Press article included these quotes among others:

• “Everyone knows that plastic bags are a problem. They blow everywhere. They never biodegrade. They’re made of petroleum. And we don’t need them.” – New York City Council member Lander, one of the bill’s sponsors (who’s also quoted in the NYT’s article).

• “I’m tired of my constituents being nickel-and-dimed all the time. It’s going to give my constituents another reason to shop in New Jersey.” – City Council member Steven Matteo, who voted no on the bag fee.

• “A lot of times I leave work, if I’m on the way home, I don’t have time to have a bag with me.” – Pat Tomasso, 70, interviewed while shopping.

• “After a time I think people will switch and bring their own bags but initially not so much.” – Todd Killinger, 47, while shopping.


Originally Published here.

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