Members of the Bangor City Council are considering a proposal to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags through fees or an outright ban. Either would be helpful, but an outright ban would be more effective.
At least 20 nations and 46 local governments outside the United States have banned plastic shopping bags. In the U.S., 50 communities have taken action to reduce plastic bag use either through bans or fees, often 5 cents per bag. Those include Portland, San Francisco, Brownsville, Texas, and Telluride, Colorado. In California, voters will decide in November whether to repeal a statewide plastic bag ban passed by lawmakers.
Portland went the fee route last year, and retailers within city limits now charge 5 cents per plastic or paper shopping bag; the retailers keep the fees they collect. Portland believes the fee provides an incentive to retailers to remind people to bring their own bags, the city’s sustainability coordinator, Troy Moon, said in an email.
Anecdotally, he says, the city has seen plastic bag use decline.
The problem with Portland’s approach is that there is no monitoring to see if bag usage actually declines, and the money collected isn’t tied to any specific environmental improvements. Plus, it’s questionable whether imposing a bag fee that retailers keep offers the retailers an incentive to remind shoppers to bring their own bags.
Washington, D.C., offers a better model. In the nation’s capital, the fee for bags is the same — 5 cents — but only a penny goes to the retailer. The remaining 4 cents go to a river cleanup fund. And because the city administers the funds, it has a tally of bag use. After the fee began, the number of bags distributed by food retailers fell from 22.5 million per month to 3.3 million per month, according to an Environment Washington report. Only a third as many plastic bags were found in river cleanup efforts.
However, The Washington Post reported that city revenue collections from the bag fee — between $150,000 and $200,000 per month — have stayed the same since 2010, suggesting that bag use is no longer declining and that the fee approach has its limits.
A ban on single-use bags, which are in place in York and Kennebunk, is a more straightforward approach. There is evidence that bans work, according to Scientific American. San Jose, California, banned plastic bags in 2011. A study there found an 89 percent reduction in plastic litter in the city’s storm drain system and 60 percent reductions in creeks, rivers and streets.
There are economic benefits as well, namely reduced demand for the oil used to make plastic bags. “The fact that Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic grocery bags each year means we are drilling for and importing millions of barrels worth of oil and natural gas for a convenient way to carry home a few groceries,” Scientific American said.
Media Matters debunked numerous myths about plastic bag bans in 2014 — such as claims that plastic bag bans don’t help the environment and don’t actually reduce litter — and concluded that banning plastic bags accomplishes all of the above. Such bans reduce waste, litter and energy usage, and the use of reusable bags in plastic bags’ place does not endanger people’s health or the economy.
Bangor should join the growing list of communities that have banned plastic shopping bags.