December 14, 2016  
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Could plastic bag bans hurt paper?

Producers of paper bags may cheer the idea of banning thin plastic grocery bags. Thousands of them seem to clutter streets and flutter from tree branches in many metropolitan areas, and banning bags made from non-renewable plastic seems like it would be a boon for proponents of sustainable paper bags. Yet in some areas, the bans and fees are including paper bags in what some are calling “regulatory overreach.”

Here’s a quick look at recent legislation in three US locations.

In November, the Chicago City Council passed a new regulation imposing a 7-cent fee on all disposable paper or plastic bags. Five cents of the fee will go directly to the city; retailers get the remaining two cents to cover the cost of the bags. According to the Chicago Tribune, the ordinance “(is) expected to pump about $13 million into city coffers and encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags after a 2014 ban on thinner plastic bags did less than hoped to achieve that goal.”

Bag taxes are often thought to be modeled on a highly successful program instituted in Ireland, where a 2002 law dramatically decreased the use of plastic bags and reduced plastic bag litter. However, Chicago’s plan differs significantly from the Irish model, prompting critics to maintain that the law is more about creating revenue for the city than it is about environmental concerns. “The Chicago tax, which will apply to paper as well as plastic, is far lower than the 30-cent a bag charge that successfully curbed behavior in Ireland, raising questions about whether shoppers at grocery and retail outlets will view it more as an annoying trifle than a penalty to actively avoid,” writes Alejandra Cancino of the Better Government Association in the Chicago Daily Herald.

“What's more, the proceeds from the Irish tax as well as some of those imposed in US cities are channeled into special funds that underwrite environmental programs. Not so in Chicago, where most of the US$12.9 million expected to be raised next year will go straight into the city's precariously balanced main checking account.”

The plastic bag ban outlined by Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley contains a fee on paper bags that will cost Boston consumers, said Gretchen Spear, director, packaging for the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) in a recent press release. “A five-cent paper bag fee will cost Bostonians millions of dollars, hitting hard working families at a time they can ill afford it… Consumers who are sensitive to environmental concerns opt for paper bags because paper bags are recyclable, compostable, and made from a renewable resource.”

O’Malley, a district councilor from Roslindale, chaired the Plastic Bag Ordinance Task Force and recently unveiled legislation banning thin, single-use plastic bags from being used by grocery stores and other retailers. O’Malley maintained plastic bags are harmful to the environment and clog up landfills for hundreds of years. However, his bill also calls for a five-cent fee on paper bags. The surcharge will go directly to retailers and not be directed for programs to benefit the public.

“The City of Boston should look carefully at the proposed fee and reject it based on both economic and environmental factors,” Spear said. “Nearly every other municipality in Massachusetts that has considered a bag ordinance has turned down a paper bag fee. The Task Force’s proposal simply goes too far.”

Officials in Washtenaw County (location of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s sixth largest city and home of the University of Michigan) have approved a carryout bag ordinance that would charge 10 cents for every plastic and paper bag used at grocery stores, restaurants and retail outlets. The fee would go into effect in April 2017, on Earth Day.

In response, the Michigan State Senate and House have approved legislation that would bar local governments from adopting such fees or bans of plastic bags and other packaging containers. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign it into law.

In a Detroit News article, Jonathan Oosting and Michael Gerstein write, “County officials have said they want to give consumers and businesses an incentive to eliminate what they call unnecessary waste, but critics say it would be bad for companies forced to assess the fee, particularly those who operate stores in multiple parts of the state… State House Democrats blasted the proposal as an attack on local control, pointing out that Republican colleagues often bemoan federal regulations imposed on states.”

According to the National Council of State Legislators, between 2015 and 2016 at least 77 bills have been proposed by 23 states regarding the regulation of plastic bags in retail settings. And while some regulations include paper bags in the same “disposable” category as plastic, other ordinances seem designed to promote the use of paper as a more environmental choice. Still other municipalities have enacted legislation to minimize or limit bag bans. NCSL provides a state-by-state listing of pending and enacted regulations relating to plastic bags.


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