Double-Bagged: Sagging Economy Drives Politicos Away From Plastic Bag Fees Toward Simplistic Bans -- Or, More Likely, Nothing

Joe Eskenazi
It's not often that we'll deign to cover the affairs of the Santa Clara County Recycling & Waste Reduction Commission, but today's the day.

In a few hours, the commission will discuss whether to move forward on a bold and environmentally sound plan to impose a 25-cent fee on all bags handed out in the county -- paper or plastic -- with the end goal being to encourage shoppers to bring their own. Now, it's not often that we'll bet on the affairs of the SCCR&WRC -- but today's the day. They're going to punt this one back to staff at best, turn it back at worst. Why? Because the terms "fee" and "economic crisis" don't go well together.

"Again and again, from every elected official, we've heard how they'd much rather do a plastic bag ban -- any kind of fee is going to be a liability," confirmed Bryan Early, a policy associate at the Sacramento-based environmental legislation group Californians Against Waste. "At the last San Jose City Council meeting, it was unclear [in what manner] the [bag reduction] approach was going to go forward. Some of the council members really preferred the ban over the fee approach."

The problem here, as we pointed out in a recent cover story, is that plastic bag bans -- like San Francisco's -- are feel-good, do-bad legislation that actually make more problems for the environment than the status quo and don't do a damn thing to encourage folks to stop using throwaway bags.

Meanwhile, don't think the plastic companies aren't smelling blood right now. They've ramped up their litigious behavior and it's working: A judge last week ruled that Manhattan Beach erred in not conducting a costly environmental impact report prior to banning plastic bags and Seattle dropped its proposed 20 cent bag fee. Portland also recently dropped its proposed bag fee with Mayor Sam Adams saying now was not the right time for it politically (this, quite realistically, could also have something to do with Adams' teen-aged gay sex scandal). It seems that "do nothing" is the new "change."

Granted, times are tough, and working families don't need extra bills to worry about. But even the most free-spending, bag-wasting family wouldn't get billed for more than three or four bucks for every shopping trip -- about the price of a couple jars of apple sauce -- and wouldn't get billed at all if they brought their own bags. Remember, you can opt out of a bag fee by bringing your own bags. The extra millions of dollars imposed on stores by having to stock paper or so-called compostable plastic bags? You'll end up paying for it a few cents at a time. You can't opt out unless you don't shop.

Politicians' tap dance around trying to do well by the environment -- and doing the opposite -- all in the name of avoiding the industry-stoked wrath of consumers is not a pretty picture. If you ever wanted to discern the difference between green and greenwashing -- here you go.

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