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February 16th, 2011 NIGEL JAQUISS | Politics
 

Blowing In The Wind

Why the bag bill sails forward despite significant weaknesses.

news3_bagban_3715IMAGE: WW Staff
     
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Anybody who has ever watched a tree-bound plastic bag flapping in the Columbia Gorge wind or glimpsed one bobbing in a coastal wave understands the visceral appeal of a proposed plastic bag ban now before the Oregon Senate.

But, in fact, the feeling inspired by that proposal—Senate Bill 536—may be a lot stronger than the factual case for removing about 1 billion plastic bags a year from Oregon grocery stores. 

“It’s difficult to combat emotion with fact,” says Mark Daniels, a vice president at Hilex Poly, a South Carolina-based plastic bag maker and recycler.

Hilex and the rest of the plastic bag industry are playing defense in a state where they employ very few workers and have seen a vital business group—the Oregon Grocery Association—defect to the environmental side.

While passage of the bag ban is far from certain, proponents’ success in marshaling bipartisan legislative support demonstrates the return of the environmental lobby, which underperformed with failures on priorities such as a ban on the chemical Bisphenol A from baby beverage containers and a cap-and-trade mechanism despite large Democratic majorities in the last Legislature.

“I think it says something about our maturation as a lobby,” says Sue Marshall, who represents Willamette and Tualatin Riverkeepers in Salem.

The bag ban is advancing in the face of plastic’s advantages over paper. Plastic bags are lighter, cheaper and more waterproof than paper bags, for starters. Plastic bags are also more versatile than paper bags, and even though they may seem ubiquitous, studies in California and Washington show plastic bags make up less than 2 percent of all litter in those states.

And in a state that is among the nation’s leaders in adopting aggressive greenhouse gas reduction standards, perhaps the most compelling argument in Oregon for plastic is that a paper bag generates as much as two times the greenhouse gases generated by making a plastic bag. Numerous studies have found plastic superior from an emissions perspective.

David Allaway, a senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, says paper bag makers have refused to share data with federal scientists that they say disputes plastics’ greenhouse gas superiority.

“The plastic bag has a lower carbon footprint than a paper bag,” Allaway says. Nonetheless, DEQ supports the ban because it wants to reduce litter, eliminate the headache that plastic bags cause for recyclers by gumming up machines, and shift consumers toward reusable bags.

Those same three considerations were at play in 2010, when a plastic bag ban bill died quickly in a special legislative session. 

What’s different now is that the grocers, then a bitter opponent, now support a ban. Their evolution on the issue results from both a carrot and a stick. 

The carrot is that SB536 allows grocers to charge at least a nickel but as much as they want for paper bags.

Former legislative counsel Greg Chaimov says he can think of only one other Oregon statute  (the minimum wage)that specifies what companies may pay or, in the case of the bag ban, get to charge.

“It’s very unusual,” Chaimov says. 

Grocers also will make extra money selling tens or hundreds of millions of plastic bags to replace those that consumers will no longer have lying around the house, and also by selling reusable grocery carriers.

“This bill’s a big moneymaker for the grocers,” says Hilex’s Daniels. 

The stick is the local bag bans that cities such as Portland and Eugene stand ready to implement should a statewide ban fail. The grocers have said they don’t want to have to deal with different policies in every city. 

The bag ban has a lot of friends, including co-sponsor Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), who has put in many hours since the bill’s failure in 2010. But one of most notable differences is the leadership of Oregon League of Conservation Voters executive director Jon Isaacs, who was a political strategist long before he became an enviro. 

“The difference now is, we’re trying to work with major business groups instead of always against them,” Isaacs says. “We’re trying to be more pragmatic.” 


FACT: Cotton requires so much water and energy to produce that a 2009 Finnish study found a shopper would have to reuse a cotton bag 180 times before it became environmentally superior to a plastic bag.


 
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