That the city of Durango included a “hardship exemption” in its scheme to discourage single-use bags at grocery stores nicely sums up the weirdness of this issue. After all, if charging a 10-cent fee for bags is neither costly nor inconvenient, why is there a need for an exemption?
There probably is not. But its inclusion does serve to demonstrate the wholly symbolic nature of the bag fee and the proponents’ need to make it more palatable.
This is not so much a serious policy proposal as a Rorschach test. Like the ink blots shown to psych patients to try to divine their thinking, the bag issue allows each of us to display our feelings and our tribal allegiance. Those wishing to define themselves as green and progressive see the bag fee as an obvious and easy way to limit a source of pollution. Those who see themselves as fundamentally at odds with Boulder or Santa Monica, Calif., take it as a statist limitation of individual choice.
Of course, there are others still who see it as a too-easy way to seemingly do something for the environment without much effort. Shutting down the Four Corners power plant, for example, would have a real and demonstrable effect on public health and quality of life across the region. It would also be a lot more difficult than getting the City Council to vote on bags.
Then, too, while the discussion focuses almost entirely on plastic bags, the fee also applies to perfectly recyclable paper sacks, while the plastic bags used for vegetables are exempt. So, too, are bags of any kind offered by merchants other than the city’s Albertsons, Walmart and two City Markets. Are they less toxic or friendlier to marine life?
Likewise, there is a $1 limit to how much the store can charge in bag fees in a single transaction. So if a family loading up for a multi-generational picnic buys 15 bags of groceries it will get five bags free. Are those bags somehow greener?
In fairness, it must be said that opponents of the bag fee have overstated the health hazards associated with reusable bags. Sure, they are going to be lying around the back seat with the kids’ sneakers, the dogs and the ice scraper. But most of them will also fit nicely in the laundry. As a Herald news story put it Sunday, “It is a good idea to wash them now and then.”
But then, that same story alluded to another possible response saying, “You always can wheel out the grocery cart to the car and bag the groceries in the parking lot,” the reporter responsibly added: “But don’t drive off with a handheld grocery basket.”
Except that to many shoppers, that might be the obvious solution. That basket is handy and reusable. It is easily cleanable – the stores even offer free wipes for that purpose. And unlike with bags, plastic or otherwise, the oranges and avocados will not roll around the back of the car. The baskets offer all the advantages of reusable bags and greater convenience.
Of course, those baskets do not actually belong to the shopper. But many might rationalize that by arguing that it is not really stealing if one always brings it back.
The debate about bags has often turned on terminology. Is it a bag ban, a tax or a fee, when it can be thought of as any or all of those. But a simpler test, and perhaps a better question, is simply whether focusing on grocery bags is the most productive use of our time and energy.