A little good news to start the year with: as of January 1, 2012, my hometown (not so much a town as a sprawling, amoeba-shaped suburb south of San Francisco) has banned virtually all retailers from giving out plastic shopping bags. You can’t even buy them anymore. If you forget to bring your own bag, your only options are to 1) carry it out without one (this means you, Mrs. Can-I-Get-This-Laundry-Detergent-Double-Bagged), 2) buy a reusable at the store, or 3) pay 10 cents for a paper bag. My own little San Jose now has one of the strictest bag bans in the nation.
I want people to make educated, rational, and voluntary choices. I do, I really do. But I also recognize that regulation works better (much better) than education in some things, especially when it comes to making us give up an immediate convenience for longterm sustainability. Plastic bags aren’t the most important environmental issue we face, not by a long shot. But they do show how effective regulation can be. Within a few weeks of Ireland’s new plastic bag policy (people can still choose to buy plastic bags at checkout if they want, but they cost about 33 cents each), bag usage dropped 94%. Everyone bought (or finally started to use) reusables. Plastic bags became a social taboo. In Washington, DC, the 5 cent plastic bag tax caused the number of plastic bags given out to plummet from 22.5 million per month to 3 million.
That’s huge. Charging for plastic bags made more of a difference than giving out free reusables or educating people on the reasons to avoid disposable bags. I dunno, maybe we should just accept that, as a species, humans are not going to act wisely, rationally, and thoughtfully unless we have an incentive to — or a disincentive to act badly. Government? You listening?
San Jose’s reaction to the new bag ban is, not surprisingly, mixed. There is plenty of libertarian howling about the evils of more government and less choice. Plastic lobbyists are displeased. And lots of people are complaining about the cost of paper bags (.10) or reusables (.99-2.99). I’m not really sure why. Many stores in my area have given away reusables on Earth Day or when they opened, and Target and probably other retailers were giving reusable bags away for free yesterday. At this point, I feel like everyone who wants reusable bags already has a closet full. I certainly do.
I think the roar will die down pretty quickly once people settle into new habits. The only bags I tend to use are my handy roll-up Envirosax that fit perfectly into a purse and hold everything, so I’m planning to bring some of my extra reusable bags to the store with me to give away to anyone who needs one. It’s a good way to start a new year of environmental awareness and activism.
Here’s to progress and hope in 2012!