We all want to see fewer plastic bags dangling in our trees, flapping on our fences, polluting our oceans, and clogging up our storm drains—it’s how to solve this problem that’s cause for debate. Some people suggest that we should ban plastic bags altogether, that way there won’t be any to be littered. Others say that this is a “people problem,” and we need to just educate our people about the dangers of littering and hope they voluntarily do the right thing with their many bags.
I say that we need a policy that actually challenges the very notion of disposability, and gets people to think twice about taking a handful of single-use disposable bags and instead opt for a reusable alternative, or skip the bag altogether. This is why I support a fee-based policy that sends the right signal to consumers to re-think the way they think about their own personal contribution to the problem and hit them where they can feel it: their wallets.
Placing a fee on disposable bags discourages their use and changes consumer behavior, which are why these programs are succeeding in ways that voluntary educational campaigns simply do not. We can look no further than Maine’s own industry-supported reusable bag promotion program “Got your Bag, Maine?” campaign to conclude that this method has done very little to reduce the use of disposable bags. To support this claim, an NRCM volunteer has visited 48 grocery and convenience stores in Portland and reported that only 2 of the stores had signs that reminded people to bring their reusable bags, neither of which referred to the “Got your Bags, Maine?” campaign. On a more uplifting note, Whole Foods Market, and most recently Reny’s, will reimburse customers 5 cents for each reusable bag that they bring.
So why the fee on paper bags, you say? Because without a fee on paper, people will just opt for one type of single-use disposable bag for another, and not necessarily chose a reusable alternative. In addition, even though paper is more readily recyclable in our curbside collection bins, there are many environmental impacts associated with pulp and paper manufacturing and we should not adopt a policy that would proliferate and encourage their use.
We can look to more than 20 countries around the world, and more than 150 communities across the country that have successfully eliminated tens of millions of disposable bags by adopting ordinances like the one proposed in Portland. Many cities charge only 5 cents for each bag and have succeeded in reducing single-use disposable bags by as much as 80%. Ten years from now, we believe most children will be surprised to learn that there was a time when disposable bags were handed out routinely at stores only to be thrown away minutes later when the bags were unloaded at home. The Natural Resources Council of Maine is proud of the people of Portland for taking this important step toward making their city a more sustainable one.
—Sarah Nichols, NRCM Sustainable Maine Director