Sing a green song to that sweet bag o’mine

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

Last week, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels burnished his reputation as “America’s Greenest Mayor” with a new environmental proposal, this one aimed at the eco-shame of America’s shoppers: Plastic grocery bags.

While San Francisco banned the bag, Nickels proposes to charge Seattle shoppers a 20-cent-per-bag fee for plastic bags.

Across the country, cities seeking to find their sustainability sweet spot have taken aim at plastic grocery bags. With Federal Way just beginning to ponder its sustainability, will shoppers have to sacrifice their plastic bags in the name of environmental improvement?

To the extent there’s a debate over plastic bags, it’s really a debate over how to reduce our use and reliance on them. The debate over their environmental impact has been settled for some time.

Plastic bag production uses large quantities of non-renewable energy and petroleum products. Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after bringing home the bacon, a gallon of milk or simply a small prescription from the drugstore.

That’s the equivalent to dumping 12 million gallons of oil.

And those discarded plastic bags add up to an estimated 8 billion pounds of petroleum-based waste headed to U.S. landfills each year. Unfortunately, many plastic bags don’t even make it to the landfill. They tumble around parking lots and right-of-ways like restless castabouts, eventually finding their way to storm drains, and from there Puget Sound and the ocean. They become part of a global ocean plastic pollution problem that kills some 100,000 marine mammals and more than a million birds a year.

The fundamental problem with plastic bags is that they don’t really go away. It can take 1,000 years for a bag to break down in a landfill, while out in the environment, they slowly break down into smaller pieces that pollute soil and water, and poison wildlife.

The staggering reality is that unless it was incinerated, every plastic bag you and I have ever used (including the one this paper came in — just use your imagination, Web readers), is still in existence, clogging a landfill, hanging from a tree, floating around in the ocean, or some hapless creature’s belly.

So ban them, right? Well, not so fast. I’m convinced plastic bags have a huge negative environmental impact. I’m not so convinced that a ban, or Mr. Nickels’ 20-cent-per-bag tax, would be effective or fair.

First off, plastic bags are one of the most ubiquitous and widely used consumer conveniences in the country. The history of prohibition of popular items has a checkered record of effectiveness. I’m not suggesting a plastic bag ban would result in plastic bag speakeasies or gangs of bag runners sneaking contraband grocery bags over the Auburn border.

When it comes to changing human behavior, however, an outright bag ban may not get us the results we desire. Plastic bags do have a role in our society. For some people and situations, they may be more convenient for shopping than the alternatives. For responsible dog owners, they are a vital piece of equipment in keeping another kind of waste out of the environment.

Nor is it fair to single out plastic bags. The old “paper vs. plastic” debate is really a straw man argument. Both types of bags are tough on old Mother Nature. Credible studies that have looked at the entire life cycle of both kinds of bags have found that paper grocery bags may actually deliver a bigger hit to the environment.

While Mayor Nickel’s proposal would tax both plastic and paper, I wonder about the regressive impact of the measure on lower income families. It seems to be a proposal that’s a lot easier on the downtown wine and cheese crowd than it is on the poor families in High Point. There likely won’t be a groundswell in Federal Way for environmental measures that ride on the backs of poor working families.

Given their environmental impact, Federal Way would do well to address plastic and paper grocery bags. Instead of banning them, however, we should explore ways to increase the use of alternative bags.

The best answer to the paper or plastic question is re-usable grocery bags, typically made of canvas or hemp.

While many grocery stores sell re-usable grocery bags (Friends of the Hylebos will soon offer its own canvas grocery bags), and offer discounts for using them, more needs to be done to create incentives to use them.

Changing behavior takes time and a creative approach. It may not have the news-worthiness of Seattle’s bag tax or San Francisco’s ban, but it might just be the fairest and ultimately, most effective way to reduce plastic and paper bag use in our city.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Contact: or (253) 874-2005.