Editorial: City needs to understand pros and cons of penalizing plastic and paper bag users

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Understanding the true costs and benefits of a community regulation on plastic and paper bags is a lot like walking around with a sack on your head — there are lots of things that are difficult to see.

City commissioners should keep that in mind as they consider a recommendation by the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board to create a 16-cent per bag fee for shoppers who use plastic sacks or paper bags at local retail establishments.

It doesn’t take much research to learn that such fee programs and outright bans can have unintended consequences. For example, some communities think they are fighting climate change with such bag bans. But then they risk becoming disappointed as studies are beginning to find that the reusable cotton bags many people use to replace their plastic and paper bags are actually worse from a climate change standpoint. (Growing and harvesting cotton can put a strain on the environment, it seems.) Thicker plastic bags may be better, but if we all do that, how much more oil will we need to extract from the earth?)

Commissioners, thus, should focus on creating a bag program based on what is clear. Perhaps the clearest conclusion on this topic is that plastic sacks are a particularly messy piece of trash. They aren’t compatible with the city’s single stream recycling program. They are tough to contain at the landfill, and they are particularly harmful to marine life when the bags frequently get into a body of water.

Focus on making that problem better.

What’s less clear is why paper sacks should get wrapped into this debate. The evidence isn’t there that they are creating the same problems as plastic bags. When asked by the Journal-World why paper sacks would be part of the program, a sustainability board member said they were a poor use of resources and there was a limit on their recyclability. The list of products that meet those criteria is long. The explanation seems flimsy.

Again, with a little research, it seems that the case for reducing paper bag usage goes to climate change. The energy to produce and transport a bag can put a strain on the environment. But this is a much cloudier conclusion than the findings on plastic sacks. There are lots of factors that alter the conclusion on paper sacks. What type of forest practices are used in producing the paper? What are the energy-saving methods employed at the production facility? How are the sacks shipped? And many more.

Unlike the plastic sack initiative — which does have a chance to make Lawrence a cleaner place — it is difficult to see the direct benefit of reducing paper bag usage.

The city also should be wary of what it asks businesses to pay. There will be a cost for businesses to collect this fee on behalf of the city. Accounting services aren’t free.

And then there is the issue of the money. For one, some math-checking seems in order on the 16-cent fee. Let’s really examine the assumptions behind it before adopting it. But also, what specifically will the city do with this money?

It could be a lot of money. If indeed 30 million plastic and paper bags are used in the city each year — which has been one estimate from the board — if the fee reduces usage by 90%, the city still would collect $480,000 a year. If usage is reduced by a more modest rate of 50%, the fee program would generate $2.4 million a year.

All we know right now is the fees would be used to run the program, buy some reusable bags to give away and fund some programs for low-income people. The public should demand a lot more specifics than that prior to any fee program becoming a reality.

Don’t let this become like the affordable housing sales tax that was approved without any real spending plan. Some people called that blind-faith approval being compassionate. Maybe it was, but if we keep operating on blind faith, we someday all will be chumps.

And we may not even have the paper bags to wear to hide our embarrassment.


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