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By Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 21 July 2010

Plastic bag litter

Since 1977, checkers at grocery stores have been asking the same question: "paper or plastic?"

In Oregon, that question could soon become: "paper or your own bag?"
At the same time that two Oregon state senators are attempting to ban the single use plastic bag across the state, Portland Mayor Sam Adams is behind a local ordinance that would prevent large grocery and drug stores from offering the disposable carry-alls.
If these initiatives pass, Oregon could become the first state to ban plastic grocery bags and Portland would join several cities that have already enacted bans or extra fees to induce people to bring reusable bags on their shopping trips.
Both proposals would also place a nickel fee on each paper bag used at checkout, in an effort to discourage consumers from merely switching one disposable bag for another. Adams' effort even includes a mandate for the large stores to provide reusable bags for purchase or at cost – a product that many, if not most, grocery stores are already offering.


Plastic bags, simply put, are a major source of litter across the state, says Palmer Mason, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's Legislative Analyst.
The bags made up about 12 percent of debris that was collected in last year's International Coastal Cleanup as well as SOLV's Oregon Coast cleanups that are heald
They're also a major headache for recyclers.
"Our experience in talking with solid waste recyclers are that plastic bags are a problem," Mason told The Skanner News.
Machines and workers help sort out different types of recyclables – from paper to plastic – and the disposable plastic bags can gum up the machines and must be removed by hand. If recyclables are wrapped in a plastic bag, as is often the case when well-meaning citizens deposit items in a bin, they must be removed.
But simply replacing paper for plastic, according to data from the report "Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags" by Boustead Consulting, isn't exactly a winning proposition.
Producing paper bags requires a lot more energy and resources than plastic bags. According to the Boustead report, producing and transporting 1,000 paper bags requires 2,622 megajoules of energy. The same number of plastic bags requires just 509 megajoules.
Roy Kaufman, spokesperson for Mayor Sam Adams, said there is one upshot for this region in terms of switching to paper bags – we have an established pulp and paper industry that would likely benefit from the business. The city ordinance would also mandate that 40 percent of a bag's composition be recycled.
"We're not saying paper is perfect," he said. "We need to shift away from paper and plastic bags."


Other Experiences
DEQ's Mason says that while the concerns over paper bag usage and pollution should be quelled by the nickel charge. In the Washington D.C. area, for example, where a nickel charge has been in place, there has been a drop in the overall number of single use bags used.
In San Francisco, where single-use plastic bags have been banned since late 2007, bag litter is down by 50 percent, according to Mark Westlund, a spokesman for San Francisco's Department of Environment.
Westlund told The Skanner News that while there haven't been any quantitative studies about how many people are using reusable bags, he said some stores questioned say that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of customers are bringing their own bags.
Several grocers in the Portland area – such as Whole Foods and New Seasons Market – voluntarily do not offer plastic bags. Fred Meyer announced it would no longer offer plastic bags in its Portland stores beginning Aug. 1. All of these stores offer reusable bags for purchase. They did not return calls inquiring into how many of their customers use reusable bags.
The owner of the Cherry Sprout Produce Market, 722 N. Sumner St., said as a small business owner, having to switch to paper bags would likely result in an increase in the cost of produce.
Kaufman, told The Skanner News that the city ordinance is specifically designed with stores such as Cherry Sprout Market in mind. The proposed state law would ban them outright.
"We don't want the shift to be punitive to stores," Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the proposed ordinance is not about glamorizing paper – it's about getting people to think about changing their shopping habits when it comes to disposable bags.
"It's similar to the learning curve for recycling," says Kaufman. When recycling programs began in Portland in the late 1980s, recycling rates were low and it took time to get everyone used to the idea of separating their waste.
Similarly, he said many stores are seeing a saturation point with people who are voluntarily purchasing reusable bags. The city has been giving away reusable bags for the last couple of years and Kaufman said they intend on operating public/private partnerships to expand this service.
The ordinance will be submitted to council in early August, says Kaufman.


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