Since its introduction about 30 years ago, the plastic grocery bag has become as ubiquitous as the cockroach, but a lot more harmful to the Earth. An estimated 500 billion of the things are used worldwide each year. The United States alone uses about 84 billion.
Only 1 to 3 percent of these billions of bags are recycled. The rest end up in the environment - in landfills, or in lakes, streams, oceans, forests or your backyard.
Once in the environment, plastic bags hang around for quite a while. The estimated time for a bag to naturally degrade ranges from 400 to 1,000 years. It's reasonably safe to assume nobody now alive will ever see it happen.
When they get into the environment - whether natural or human - plastic bags create one hell of a mess. In Bangladesh they clogged sewers and storm drains so badly that they contributed to massive flooding in 1988 and 1998. (The country finally banned the bags in 2002.)
Plastic bags that make their way into the ocean become a menace to sea turtles and other marine creatures that eat them or get entangled in them. (The turtles mistake them for jellyfish, a favorite food item.) The organization Environment California has estimated that bags and other plastic items kill up to a million marine animals each year. In the Northern Pacific alone, the estimated annual toll is 100,000.
As awareness of the plastic bag problem grows, a number of American cities, including San Francisco, have banned them outright or slapped heavy taxes on them. Now the Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would make this the first state to ban the bags.
The measure - SB 536 - is being sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats. It would prohibit grocery stores from offering plastic bags to customers, who would have the option of paying a nickel per bag for recycled paper bags or bringing their own reusable bags.
The bag ban has the support of the Northwest Grocers Association and Fred Meyer stores; arrayed on the other side is the plastics industry, which has been trying to rally the right-wing troops by (predictably) claiming the ban represents "unnecessary and intrusive government regulation" and calling the 5-cent paper bag charge a "tax." (How it can be considered a "tax" when the state won't get any money from it isn't explained.)
What the plastics industry wants to do, of course, is to continue to externalize the costs of its products - i.e., to shift the burden of cleaning up the mess they create onto consumers and taxpayers. They're been playing that dishonest game too long, and it's time for the legislature to put a stop to it.
Oregon has a long and proud tradition of leading the nation in protecting the environment; the plastic grocery bag ban will be a worthy addition to that honorable record. Legislators, do your duty and join us in giving plastic bags THE BOOT.