[OPINION] It’s Time To Stop Paying For “Free” Shopping Bags

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by Noemi de la Puente, Sustainable Lawrence Board Member

Sometimes it feels like things are set up to help us waste our money.

Case in point: the distribution of “free” plastic and paper shopping bags.

The average consumer uses 500 bags a year (about 80% plastic, and 20% paper). They cost the grocery store 2 – 5 cents, if plastic, and 5 – 23 cents if paper. I’m paying for them: the cost is hidden in the cost of the items I buy. I figure I spend $13 – $43 per year on bags I think I am getting for free. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimates the hidden costs of bags to be $37.50 per person per year.

Let’s follow the money. Grocery stores are stuck in the middle. They typically pay $1,000 – $6,000 per month on bags alone. They do this because they think I will stop shopping there if I don’t get “free” bags, feeling compelled to keep on buying and distributing the bags, and hiding the costs. The money the grocery stores spend goes to the plastic bag manufacturers who make tens of millions of dollars on plastic bags alone. Poor grocery stores – they had to pay for that. Wait a minute – poor us! The stores pass those costs along to you and me.

So right now, even though I bring my reusable bags to the store, I still pay the hidden costs for other people’s bag use, because stores won’t charge individuals for bags.

Can we give the NJ consumer a choice here and stop automatically subsidizing the plastic bag industry and paper bag industry? Couldn’t retailers declare their independence, lower their overhead, and side with the consumer? How about charging only the people who use the bags, and leaving the rest of us to our big reusable bags so we can save money (and carry more stuff, to boot)? Would it help if we as consumers take a pledge that we will still shop at our local stores?

There is more to the story and the trail of money out of my pocket. Here in the Garden State all 8.8 million of us use about 4.4 billion, yes billion, bags a year (not counting the bread bags, produce bags, newspaper bags, etc that we also use). Most of the bags end up in landfills where we taxpayers foot the bill to dispose of tons of them. In Lawrence Township, where I live, we pay $104 per ton to dispose of our garbage. So our township could save a lot of money if we generated less trash.

There are solutions. San Jose, California passed a law making every bag cost 10 cents. People in San Jose stopped using bags by about 90%. San Jose reported an 89% drop in the amount of bag litter in their storm drains. That city estimates it is saving $1 million a year by not having to repair municipal recycling equipment that previously got jammed with plastic bags. What’s more, the city saved landfill and transfer station bag litter control costs estimated at $318,000 per year.

On the other hand, San Francisco tried recycling their plastic bags for a while, then learned it cost the taxpayers about 17 cents per bag for their marginal recycling program. So the recycling option isn’t so thrifty as one would hope.

In Washington D.C., a five-cent fee on bags went into effect recently, and bag usage plummeted about 86%, along with the associated costs I mentioned earlier. Fee revenues dedicated to a good purpose: cleaning up the Anacostia River, a body of water which flows through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the area.

What galls me more: almost half of all plastic film (includes plastic bags) recovered in the United States was shipped overseas for processing. What a waste of time and resources. I don’t want to pay for that. I’d rather just bring my own bag in the first place.

Plastic bags are notorious for ending up in waterways that lead to our oceans. Who wants to see plastic bags instead of dolphins off our shores? North Carolina’s Outer Banks area passed a plastic bag ban, because they felt that plastic bag litter was affecting tourism. Why jeopardize the Jersey Shore and its $19 billion tourism industry with plastic bag litter?

There is a solution in sight. Senate Bill S-812, and Assembly Bill A-3787, would put a five cent fee on all paper and plastic shopping bags. Four cents would go to the DEP to clean up Barnegat Bay, and one cent would remain with the merchant. And if you’re like me – all five cents per bag will remain in your pocket as you bring your own bag!

I urge people to support these bills. Tell elected officials not to listen to the deep-pocketed plastic bags lobby. We need solutions to the problem of plastics proliferation and this one that deserves action.

 


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