Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Placing a value on plastic bags is key to reducing consumption

In 2015, roughly 534 tons of clean plastic shopping and dry cleaning bags ended up in Tacoma landfills, and it cost the city approximately $56 a ton – or $30,000 – to get them there.
In 2015, roughly 534 tons of clean plastic shopping and dry cleaning bags ended up in Tacoma landfills, and it cost the city approximately $56 a ton – or $30,000 – to get them there. Thinkstock photo

I will get emails about this column.

And calls.

And perhaps even a few angry, handwritten letters.

All of this is par for the course when writing about Tacoma’s proposed plastic bag ordinance and specifically when taking a stance in favor of it.

My guess is that the City Council, which recently moved a proposal out of committee and will get a full briefing during this week’s study session, is finding out the same.

Suggesting we limit the use of plastic bags, or charge for any kind of bag, is one of the quickest ways to arouse the ire of a certain portion of the population — and activate the PR machine behind the plastic bag industry.

I’ll almost certainly get an email from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents plastic bag recyclers, manufacturers and distributors. The APBA’s argument — which local manufacturers like Poly Bag agree with — is that retail plastic bags are highly reusable and that a focus on recycling would do more good.

The limited experience I’ve had poking the plastic bag bear, however, is nothing compared to the years of experience under the belt of Jennie Romer, a New York-based attorney and perhaps the most dedicated plastic bag warrior in the country.

“They’re incredibly powerful,” Romer told me by phone this week, discussing the influence of the plastic bag industry and its efforts across the country to thwart local bans. “I think that they see this as a tipping point.

“I’ve been working on this issue for a long time, and I’m never surprised with how adept they are and how quickly they move into communities that start talking about (restricting plastic bags),” she continued.

I knew nothing of Romer’s work until last week, when The New Yorker featured an extensive piece on New York’s efforts to pass a plastic bag bill that, in some ways, is similar to Tacoma’s.

Staff writer Ian Frazier described Romer as “the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law.”

Romer has the résumé to back it up. She’s helped cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles pass plastic bag legislation, and at 38, has become the go-to source for any city interested in reducing the use of plastic bags.

“I see this kind of a gateway environmental activity, like a gateway drug,” Romer explained. “It’s something where people see that their everyday choices make a difference, and they can get involved with local environmental legislation. Or they can just bring their own bag and see that it’s not that difficult.”

One of Romer’s biggest victories on the plastic bag front lines came this week, when on Friday — after four years of struggle — the New York City Council adopted a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags.

The idea in New York, as it is here in Tacoma — where the bag bill has been strategically been named the Bring Your Own Bag ordinance — is to reduce the number of plastic bags that show up in our landfills and as litter in our streets and waterways.

In 2015, roughly 534 tons of clean plastic shopping and dry cleaning bags ended up in Tacoma landfills, and it cost the city approximately $56 a ton – or $30,000 – to get them there.

And while plastic bags make up only 0.3 percent of Tacoma’s waste stream, by weight that’s more than aluminum cans and just short of the major appliances trashed in a year. Meanwhile, according to Kristin Lynett with Tacoma’s Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability, recycling centers struggle with a plastic bag equation that includes a high cost of processing and generally low revenue in return.

In its current form, Tacoma’s ordinance would go further than New York’s, banning most thin plastic bags altogether. But it’s similar in that it would place a 5-cent fee on paper bags and thick “reusable” plastic bags, with exceptions for produce bags and restaurant food carryout. And in a nod to equity, families receiving food stamps and other kinds of assistance wouldn’t be charged.

The fee is the real key; the ban, in the end, may not be necessary. As we’ve seen elsewhere, by forcing shoppers who can afford it to make the cognizant decision to pay when they do want them — for lining trash cans, cleaning up after Fido or whatever — consumption of plastic bags will go down.

That’s exactly what happened in Washington, D.C., where, over the course of three years, similar legislation resulted in 80 percent of residents using fewer disposable bags, and an average household reduction from 10 bags to four bags per week.

According to Romer, the upfront price that ordinances like Tacoma’s place on bags — instead of the hidden cost that’s now worked into grocery bills — has the power to change behavior.

“People are much more mindful of their use, because (the bags) suddenly have a value,” Romer said of bag fees. “Right now, people are seeing (plastic bags) as something valueless.”

“It changes the dynamic at the register,” Romer concludes. “It’s a very small change, and we’ve seen it makes a really big difference in consumption.”