While it may seem a simple thing—switching from a plastic bag to carrying your own—it's actually a big step in turning the tide on a harmful social trend. Progress on small issues such as this require change, and change brings critics.
Take City of Bend's Climate Action Resolution, adopted by the Bend City Council in 2016. Opponents have said it lacks teeth when set against the massive environmental challenges the planet faces—and especially in the face of federal policy that, under the current administration, is undoing environmental regulations recently adopted by the former administration.
It's helpful to remember that each of us who have used even one piece of single-use plastic is contributing to those islands of plastic floating around the Pacific Ocean that are so hard to ignore. One solution to reduce this waste? Simply grabbing a paper bag or leaving a couple bags in your car for reuse.
The "Un-Bag Bend" petition, currently circulating around Bend, offers the community one simple—and inexpensive—way to begin making a positive impact. We support the proposed ban, and we urge the Bend City Council to adopt an ordinance with teeth to support this relatively low-impact method of moving toward being more responsible stewards of our environment.
The economics of cleaning up single-use plastic bags are staggering. In wind, they're one of the first things to loose free from the mire at the landfill. Officials at Deschutes County's Knott landfill say they budget $175,000 to Heart of Oregon Corps annually for cleanup on the periphery of the landfill—estimating that 80 percent of that cleanup is plastic. They budget another $5,000 annually to Juvenile Justice to clean up 27th Street alone—again, mostly plastic.
User fees cover some of the cost of maintaining the landfill; your tax dollars also contribute. Plastic breaks down very slowly—so that problem of loose plastic at the landfill is one that almost never goes away. Your tax dollars will be spent on cleaning plastic in perpetuity.
Yes, banning the distribution of single-use plastic bags at grocery stores will be a slight inconvenience for some. Yes, you will have to remember to bring your bags to the store. Yet you already manage, in your busy life, to carry your phone, keys and wallet—and maybe even those grocery coupons that save you a buck or two. Hot tip: Reusable bags fit tidily under the seat of your car, ready when you need them.
To be fair, studies have found that the initial manufacture of paper bags has a higher environmental impact than plastic bags. A study conducted by the Australian Department of the Environment & Heritage found that the manufacture of plastic bags can generate about half the greenhouse gas emissions of paper, requiring less than one-third of the energy required to make a paper bag. In the case of the greenhouse gas emissions for the paper bag, however, it's important to note that the decomposition of the paper bag is part of the reason they generate more greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it's because paper bags break down. It takes one month to break down a paper bag. Plastic bags take up to 10 years—and while they may break into smaller pieces, those small particles only make them more easily digestible for wildlife and marine life. And those particles never go away.
But let's be honest with ourselves. The paper versus plastic argument can be moot by simply carrying your own bags. Use your backpack. Turn down a bag altogether when you have just an item or two. Be cool and sport one of those hand-woven baskets to the store. They're already doing these things in Ashland, Corvallis, Eugene and Portland, where bag bans are already in place.
Plastic bags are currently given to you, for free, by retailers. A study published by the Equinox Center in 2013 reported that plastic bags cost 1 cent, while paper costs 15 cents. Retailers in other cities with plastic bag bans recoup that cost—and encourage the use of reusable bags—by charging a fee for each paper bag and offering low-cost, reusable bags at the checkout counter. The Un-Bag Bend group also plans to offer free reusable bags at local retailers.
Bend, as a small city on a big planet, might not be able to make a gigantic impact on the overall health of the planet. But when a low-cost opportunity presents itself, which can positively impact not only the prospective budget of a public facility but also can keep harmful, persistent materials out of our waterways, local residents should support it. We do, and we hope you will, too.
Sign the petition, found by searching "Un-Bag Bend" at Change.org.