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The Debate is in the Bag

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Last week saw two very different answers to a question that’s on the minds of many retailers and consumers: What to do about all those plastic bags?

For New York City, the answer is recycling. The city council there passed a resolution requiring supermarkets 5,000 square feet or more in size, or with five or more locations in the city, to provide in-store recycling bins for plastic bags.

bags.jpgChina on the other hand — not exactly renowned for its environmental stewardship — imposed a ban on ultra-thin plastic bags and a fee on all other varieties. The state department there urged citizens to instead use cloth sacks and baskets to carry groceries.

The benefit of recycling is that it allows retailers to continue using low-price plastic bags. But critics argue it won’t keep most consumers from continuing to trash the bags they use (also, plastic never gets fully recycled). A total banning seems to address the problem at its root, but some groups say that just shifts the burden — often to paper bags, which require tons of petroleum to produce.

Last March, San Francisco imposed a plastic bag ban for all large-scale supermarkets and drug stores, at the same time giving these retailers the option to use compost-friendly bags or bags made from recycled paper. Environmental groups lauded this decision, but others say the shift to the more expensive biodegradable bags amounts to an unfair hidden tax on consumers.

Retail advocates like the California Grocers Association believe San Francisco missed the boat by failing to address consumer behavior.

“It’s about attacking the problem at its root,” said Tim James, local government relations manager with the CGA. “Just by banning a certain type of bag, you don’t necessarily change bag-use behavior.”

Many would argue, however, that behavior isn’t the issue. It’s cutting down on the 84 billion plastic bags that Americans use every year, and the 12 million barrels of oil used to produce them.

This is a lively, ongoing debate, and we’d love to hear your side of it. Should retailers have to recycle plastic bags, or ban them outright? Or should they institute usage fees? Let us know what you think.

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