Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The seen and unseen story of plastic grocery bags

Harry Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce explores a typical environmentalist governmental solution - taxing plastic grocery bags in order to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags. Montgomery County in Maryland is enacting a five cent tax on grocer-store plastic bags.

However, as Alford points out, eliminating free plastic grocery bags is not much of a solution because, as any economist would tell the Montgomery County Council, consumers will have to choose some sort of alternative to get their groceries home. And it is not clear that the alternatives, reusable plastic or cloth bags, lessen emissions.
As alternatives, plastic reusables and cloth bags must be used repeatedly over time before their environmental impacts are less than that of plastic. If they aren't reused to that extent, we only succeed in introducing more waste into our landfills.

To illustrate, it would take 7.5 years of using the same cloth bag (393 uses, assuming one grocery trip per week) before it's a better option than a plastic bag reused three times, like to carry lunch and then line a garbage can.

And since so many people (nine out of 10, according to market surveys) reuse plastic grocery bags, without them, consumers would naturally replace plastic grocery bags with other, heavier-gauge plastics, for household uses.
So what has happened in other communities when they've adopted similar policies?
After Ireland implemented its bag tax, consumption of purchased plastic trash bags increased by 400 percent. So, if the goal is to promote less waste in our landfills and use fewer plastics, bans and taxes don't achieve those outcomes.
And guess which consumers get hurt the most by such a policy? Yup, it's a regressive tax that will deliver more harm to poorer citizens in Montgomery County.
A growing number of Americans rely on government assistance for food, and taxes like this hurt these groups the most. In a time of rising gas prices, and with the rising cost of commodities driving up our grocery bills, the added financial burden at the check-out for a cause that has an arguable impact on improving the environment just doesn't make sense.
And if Montgomery County's neighboring counties don't adopt a similar tax, how long before people who may live near a county border start shifting some of their purchasing practices to a neighboring county? Another blow to employment in the area.

And this isn't even considering the health risks from people using reusable cloth bags that just happen to be reservoirs of yucky bacteria.
"Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half the bags sampled,” said Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a University of Arizona environmental microbiology professor and co-author of the study. “Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags after every use.”

The bacteria levels found in reusable bags were significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even lead to death -- a particular danger for young children, who are especially vulnerable to food-borne illnesses, he said.
It turns out that those using reusable cloth bags should be washing or bleaching them after every use? How many people know that? Or know some of the other health requirements for reusable bags?
# When using reusable bags, consumers should be careful to separate raw foods from other food products; cross-contamination problems arise when foods that people eat raw, such as apples and lettuce, are placed in a bag that has carried meat;
# Consumers should not use reusable food bags for such other purposes as carrying books or gym clothes;
# Consumers should not store reusable bags in the trunks of their cars because the higher temperature promotes growth of bacteria.
In one test, Gerba and researchers took a reusable bag that had carried meat and placed the bag in a car trunk. He said new bacteria grew in two hours. He added that in previous bacteria studies he has found a toilet seat typically has 50 coliform bacteria; in these latest studies, the reusable bags had 500 to more than 1,000 coliform bacteria.
Ugh! And if people start following the recommendations to regularly wash the cloth bags, does that add concerns about increased use of bleach, laundry detergents and washers?

Somehow, adding in that five-cent tax is just not as simple as it seems.