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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2008

Plan to pay for using plastic bags worth price

For much of last winter, my favorite tree at Wildwood Metropark stood desecrated.

A majestic sentry at the edge of a meadow, with outstretched branches that always make me think of a mother reaching to enfold a child, a stray plastic bag was trapped for months in this tree's high branches.

The shopping bag flapped in the wind like a flag planted by a victorious conquering consumer culture. Truly, it was a blight.

And that's just one plastic shopping bag.

Millions more are ensnared by chain link fences along our freeways or flit across vacant city lots and suburban parking lots. Plastic bags have been found floating north of the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, Washington's Center for Marine Conservation recently said plastic bags comprise more than 10 percent of the junk that washes up on the U.S. coastline.

Just imagine the high cost that our convenience exacts on wildlife. Plus, don't forget it takes crude oil to make these plastic bags.

Worldwatch Institute data suggest that each American throws away six or seven polyethylene plastic bags every week. Not even 10 percent of the 100 billion bags we use annually are recycled.

A plastic-wrapped landscape is so ubiquitous the Chinese call it "white pollution." I read somewhere that the Irish sometimes call their airborne plastic litter the national flag. Er, they did, anyway - before both countries moved to curb their use.

China, which this summer banned plastic shopping bags, has seen a resurgence of reusable bags. And in Ireland, plastic-bag use fell by 94 percent within weeks - weeks! - of the country's 2002 surcharge of 33 cents per bag.

So, where am I going with all this?

In lockstep right behind New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently got on the bandwagon with various U.S. localities where policies already discourage the bagging of America. Under NYC's plan, shoppers would pay an extra 6 cents per bag: a penny to retailers, 5 cents to the city.

Yes, it's a revenue generator: An estimated extra $16 million would flow annually into NYC coffers. But just as important (OK, more so) is the idea that a few extra cents might be enough to goad behavior.

Some would argue against such a "tax," since consumers are already up against the wall. Don't kid yourself. We pay for "free" shopping bags, both as individual consumers and as a society.

A reasonable argument could also be made that we should just reuse the bags that seem to repopulate overnight below the kitchen sink. If we could remember to reuse them, though, we wouldn't have so many of them in the first place.

But given an incentive not to pay extra, wouldn't we think to reuse or, better still, stop relying on plastic bags altogether?

Tell the truth: Aren't you bewildered when the grocery store sends you on your way after stuffing your milk - already packaged with its own convenient handle - into a bag (or two) designed to, yes, provide a convenient handle?

Less litter. Added revenue. Changed consumer behavior.

Sign me up.



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