Disposable bags

The city of Durango is preparing to take a strong leap toward advocacy by adopting a fee for single-use bags at local supermarkets. In doing so, it has failed to adequately define just what problem it is solving and just how the fee will remedy that societal ill.

While the notion of paying 10 cents for the privilege of using a – just one, not multiple – paper or plastic bag is not without merit, the city’s legislation of such a practice is overstepping. The Durango City Council should reconsider.

Plastic bags – the object non grata upon which the fee discussion has focused – too often are overused, improperly disposed of and generally treated with about as much thought as that given to yesterday’s newspaper. They get stuck in trees, sink in the river and add to the landfill’s total volume. None of those is a shining attribute, but neither does any of the above provide evidence of the bags’ contribution to the demise of the community’s environment, wildlife or general character.

The bags can be a nuisance, and an effort to increase our collective awareness about how many we use – and, in turn, reduce that number – is wholly appropriate. Doing so with a 10-cent fee imposed by the city, however, is a bit much.

Proponents of the fee point out that it has worked in other communities to reduce bag use significantly and that is a goal worth pursuing. Casting it as a community problem to be solved by government intervention, though, is not.

The 10-cent fee, which would be split between merchants and the city, just as easily could be levied by the merchants themselves, thereby recovering their bag costs and forcing customers to pay attention to how many bags it takes them to carry home a jar of peanut butter, bottle of juice and a box of crackers – each packaged in disposable materials. Odds are, it would be one or fewer.

If there were a significant environmental, quality-of-life or economic problem, then a city-imposed bag fee would be a worthwhile consideration. Instead, it seems to be born of a broader vision of a community in which we consume less and have more awareness about what we consume. Those are absolutely worthwhile pursuits to which we all – lawmakers and residents alike – should dedicate ourselves. But from a policy rationale perspective, they do not provide sufficient justification. Instead, they expose the City Council to criticism of being activist legislators. At times, that is acceptable, but this is not one of those.

Instead, the city could provide recycling opportunities for plastic bags or work with merchants to encourage such a practice. Merchants could offer shoppers a discount on reusable bags such that the difference between the disposable variety and those with more mileage is negligible. Or the city could outright ban the use of disposable plastic bags anywhere, period, if it wants to show its seriousness about the issue. But a 10-cent fee on bags at supermarkets smacks of sanctimony and preaching. Those are not the characteristics by which a governing body generally seeks to be defined.

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