Tacoma’s plastic bag ban bother will fade away; the bags don’t

From the Editorial Board

Good thing you’ve been building a strategic reserve of plastic grocery sacks at home. A wadded stockpile restless to see daylight again. A compressed mass barely restrained behind spring-loaded kitchen cabinet hinges, like an airbag ready to deploy in time of need.

All those flimsy carry-alls will become a valuable commodity in Tacoma starting Wednesday, when the city’s plastic bag ordinance goes into effect.

Their utility as dog poop receptacles, garbage can liners, emergency rain galoshes and limitless other purposes shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In case you hadn’t heard: The ubiquitous thin plastic bags will no longer be available at Tacoma grocery stores or other retail establishments. If you forget to bring your own bags to the checkout counter, merchants will offer recycled paper or other reusable bags, but will collect (and keep) a minimum charge of five cents for each one.

Feel free to be annoyed, if you like. But you can’t say you weren’t warned, nor claim that Tacoma leaders made a rash decision.

They’ve been discussing bag restrictions for five years; took stock of bans adopted by more than a dozen other Washington municipalities, including Seattle and Olympia; agreed to their own rules last summer; and waited a full year to implement them.

Convenience fees are already deeply embedded in 21st century culture, from buying concert tickets to using a cash machine or credit card. Why should a grocery sack be any different? Where in the Declaration of Independence does it list a free bag to tote home your beer and pretzels as an inalienable right?

Give it a few weeks, and we believe even intensely cost-conscious shoppers will adjust just fine.

Critics contend the ban is mostly for show, a feel-good measure that might change habits but won’t save the planet. If the council hadn’t adopted the ordinance, it wouldn’t spell ecological doom for Tacoma; we wouldn’t be sucked into the swirling vortex of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

A case can be made that so-called “single use” plastic bags are actually heavily reused around the house. It also can be argued that their impact on landfill capacity is negligible; they constitute well under 1 percent of the waste stream.

Moreover, the bag ban wasn’t met with wide public acclaim when the council studied it. The city conducted a survey last year and found 48 percent of people supported it (42 percent were against, with the rest undecided). And with only 2,200 responses, the public outreach was far from conclusive.

But Mayor Marilyn Strickland summed it up well last July when the council voted 8-1 in favor of the new rules. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The city blended good elements into the rollout plan. Free reusable tote bags have been distributed at local YMCAs, libraries, food banks and social service agencies. The ordinance also appropriately exempts low-income residents eligible for food benefits. Annual reports will help assess whether the ban is changing people’s behavior.

Let’s hope the answer is a resounding yes. We all could use a little nudge to take small steps of self-discipline; in time, they might lead to a more comprehensively sustainable lifestyle.

Quantifying the extent of plastic bag debris around the Tacoma area is hard to do, but it most certainly amounts to significant pollution. Think of it like the famous description of pornography by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”

In plain sight, plastic bags flutter from trees, shrubs and fences, and blow down the street like petroleum-based tumbleweeds. Out of sight, they do damage by jamming the gears of recycling machinery, catching in storm drains, washing up on remote beaches and harming aquatic life.

Worldwide, an estimated 100,000 marine animals die each year from contact with plastic bags, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The average American household takes home nearly 1,500 bags per year, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Who knows how many animals will live another day thanks to all the families in Tacoma and 13 other Washington cities that no longer dump plastic into the waste stream.

Washington might be years from a statewide bag ban, like what California voters upheld last year. For now, Tacoma can lead the way with what we hope will be a painless transition, cushioned by the bag reserve in your kitchen cabinet.