The Durango City Council is slated to take up the proposed 10-cent fee on grocery bags at its regular meeting Tuesday night. A vote on the measure may or may not happen.
The council should listen to supporters and critics alike then drop back and reconsider this well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed idea. There are other ways to foster sustainability, more pressing issues to address and symbolism can cut both ways.
The proposal would require four Durango stores – two City Markets, Albertsons and Walmart – to charge customers a dime for each bag used – plastic or paper. The city and the retailer would each get 5 cents.
Exactly what problem this is meant to address is unclear. Nor is it obvious why this has risen to the top of the council’s to-do list. Reasons not to enact such a fee, however, are easy to understand.
There is no doubt that plastic refuse is a problem. It typically does not decompose. It can harm wildlife, particularly marine animals. And it too often appears by roadsides and rivers.
It does not follow that any scheme to counter those problems is worthy – or that the proposed fee is the best response.
For starters, while the city’s otherwise-splendid single-stream recycling system cannot accept them, plastic bags can be recycled. The grocery stores do it. Why not foster more of that instead of heading directly to what amounts to a tax?
The city could put shiny new receptacles at the stores to alert customers to the recycling option. Or there could be a deposit, refundable on return. Perhaps there is a way for the city to incorporate bags into its recycling program.
And why charge for paper bags as well? Paper bags are reusable, biodegradable, pose little threat to wildlife or children, and they are accepted by the city’s recycling program. At that point it starts to look as if the real reason for the fee is revenue.
The worst part of the plan is political. Supporters of the bag fee increasingly point to the symbolic importance of the effort. It is supposed to remind people to adopt more sustainable practices, to live less wastefully and to be more aware of their impact on Earth.
But trying to force shoppers to use their own reusable bags could just as easily be taken as symbolic of all that critics perceive as wrong with government, particularly environmental regulations. And in that it could hamper local efforts to address more serious concerns.
The vast majority of a shopper’s carbon footprint consists of what is in the bag: plastic packaging of everything from lettuce to orange juice, fruit and vegetables shipped from around the world, everything imaginable from China.
Focusing on bags seems silly, and that opens the city to mockery – even when it is addressing perfectly legitimate environmental issues. Pointing to bag bans in Boulder or Telluride does not help.
The city owns a number of buildings and a fleet of vehicles of various types. There are steps the City Council could take to reduce the city’s (and with that its residents’) environmental impact and carbon footprint. Just for example, think solar panels, cars and trucks running on alternative fuels or perhaps less frequent trash pickups now that single-stream recycling accepts so much. The city could also check out the biodegradable plastic bags now available.
Efforts such as those could have real effects, without in-your-face regulation or seemingly blaming grocery shoppers for environmental degradation. The bag ban is a distraction from more important work.