My turn: Bag tax offers an opportunity

Posted: Monday, May 21, 2007

Congratulations to Juneau legislators Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Andrea Doll, along with the Alaska-based nonprofit Turning the Tides, for proposing a 15-cent tax on plastic grocery bags.

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The tax would establish a fund for recycling, community cleanup and litter prevention. More importantly, the legislation offers residents an opportunity to join other forward-thinkers in reducing wasteful use of fossil fuels.

According to Elton's sponsor statement for Senate Bill 118, Americans are responsible for at least 20 percent of the planet's plastic bags consumed annually - about 100 billion bags.

Of course, we love the bags because they are convenient and cost just pennies to produce. But their cost does not reflect their social and environmental effects. To create them, Elton says the U.S. burns 12 million gallons of oil each year. Producing plastic bags pollutes the air, contributes to our reliance on foreign oil and helps make the U.S. the world's greatest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Plastic bags also are terrible for the marine environment. According to Ocean Conservancy, volunteers removed more than 350,000 of them from U.S. coastlines in 2003. Researchers estimate that every year thousands of sea birds, marine mammals and fish die from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic bags.

The bags' longevity is another problem.

An April 1 New York Times article states that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it takes at least 1,000 years for plastic bags to completely disappear. Some environmental groups say the bags never completely disappear, as they become part of our forests, oceans and food chain. Bags that aren't hanging in trees or mixed into the forest floor languish in our dumps. Turning the Tides says plastic bags contribute an incredible 8 billion pounds of non-biodegradable garbage to our landfills each year.

An overwhelming chorus of scientists, which now includes 2,000 researchers from the U.N.'s International Panel on Climate Change, urges the world to swiftly curb the use of fossil fuels. As conservation becomes necessary, banning, taxing or otherwise eliminating plastic bags is inevitable. It is among the easiest and most cost-efficient ways to reduce greenhouse emissions. Already, such measures are in effect in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Ireland, Italy, South Africa and the city of San Francisco.

Ireland's 20-cent tax, since it was implemented in 2002, has reduced use of plastic bags by 90 percent, according to Earth Resource Foundation. Reusable canvas sacks, each eliminating the need for thousands of plastic bags, quickly became commonplace. Like Juneau's proposal, Ireland's tax is paid by consumers at the time of sale, which successfully deters bag use.

The tax is particularly pertinent in Juneau. First, with no options for recycling, we have a unique obligation to use fewer of them. Second, with so many of our lives tied to the ocean, it is hard to justify using a product so clearly destructive to the marine environment. And with the dramatic changes from global warming already visible throughout our state, Juneau residents should eagerly welcome any opportunity to lead the way toward energy conservation.

Regardless of its many benefits, some oppose the tax. The plastics industry claims it will eliminate jobs and harm the economy, never mind that other nations have survived identical measures.

Chambers of commerce, including Juneau's, claim the tax is too high. Certain retailers insist education and voluntary recycling sufficiently address the problem. But they ignore the facts that most people don't reuse the bags and that each year we produce billions more than we could possibly salvage.

None of the arguments stand up to the reality. Our use of oil to create so many plastic bags is gluttonous in an era of human-caused climate change. Those opposed to a tax don't seem to grasp the global nature of the problem.

The good news is each of us can act on the issue today. We can opt out of environmentally destructive plastic bags by purchasing canvas grocery sacks. They're inexpensive and surprisingly rewarding to use, once we learn to remember to bring them shopping.

Secondly, we can encourage our legislators to enact a tax. It will mitigate landfill costs, improve our local environment, and enable us to claim leadership in combating climate change.

• Tim Lydon is a Juneau resident.

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