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While many see banning plastic as a step toward ensuring a healthier environment, others cite unintended consequences

This story has been updated from its original version.

PMG PHOTO: AVA EUCKER - Whole Foods Market 365 is among the stores thats adjusting to Lake Oswego's plastic bag ban. Whole Foods, Palisades Market Place and Zupan's Markets combined to used about 57.200 plastic bags annually before the ban. Oregon is notorious for being home to a population of tree-hugging, bigfoot-hunting, pot-smoking, environmental "go green!" fanatics, so banning plastic carry-out bags seems an appropriate step in solidifying our image. But, does parting with plastic help or hinder the effort in creating a more sustainable environment? And how can we uplift our planet while not losing the other kind of green we are all too fond of — money?

While the Oregon House of Representatives and Senate passed a law banning single-use plastic carry-out bags in grocery and large retail stores, the bill — HB 2509 — still awaits Governor Kate Brown's signature. Lake Oswego couldn't wait.

July 1, 2019 marked the beginning of the plastic ban in LO following a decision by the City Council in December 2018. Ordinance 2806 outlines that retailers larger than 10,000 square feet cannot offer plastic bags and other retailers will follow suit by Jan. 1, 2020. 13 other cities and counties in Oregon have adopted a plastic ban.

PMG PHOTO: AVA EUCKER - Residents proudly showed off their reusable bags after the local plastic bag ban took effect July 1.Karrisa Wood, assistant grocery manager of Palisade Market Place, said she received mixed reviews from customers about eliminating plastic bags but has seen an immediate change in behavior. A notably higher rate of customers with reusable bags are accompanied by others who will opt to use less bags or to simply carry small purchases. People are quite literally exercising the will to protect our environment by balancing bananas and pretzels in hand.

The City of Lake Oswego had a month-long public comment period open on its website and received 257 votes in favor of the ban, 24 against and 10 for the ban but against the paper bag fee.

While the ban's main objective is to lessen plastic production and consumption, it also incentivises less use of paper materials. A 10 cent paper bag fee is standard throughout Lake Oswego to promote reusable bags. This fee is higher than the proposed state minimum of 5 cents. This charge is not a tax; the accruement of fees will go to retailers who on average spend 15-25 cents per production of each paper bag.

Palisades Market Place, Zupan's Markets and Whole Foods Market 365 in LO collectively have been using about 57,200 plastic bags annually. This is the equivalent of about 700 pounds of waste. These same grocery stores use 1,196,000 paper bags annually according to Lake Oswego Sustainability and Management Analyst Jenny Slepian.

Banning plastic and charging for paper means reusable bags are on the rise — but are reusable bags not made of even more plastic? Lake Oswego's ban specifies that stores can only sell reusable bags made of non-plastic or recycled materials. Several Lake Oswego business sponsors paid for and distributed 14,000 free reusable bags made of recycled polypropylene — the most popular plastic packaging material in the U.S. according to The Balance Small Business.

Slepian said she has heard overall positive responses to the reusable bags and that some people want to take the ban further to eliminate the current plastic packaging exceptions for meat, produce, pharmacy prescriptions, dry cleaning, product bags for animal waste and zip-closed bags, along with a few other exceptions. These concerns must be handled by the Oregon Department of Agriculture for food safety.

"The United States is the largest producer of waste," Slepian said. "A lot of people think most plastic waste comes from Asia but auditing the source of the waste points to the U.S. The plastic we produce here we don't always see, but it is impacting other environments too. Plastic bans do have a big impact."

While many see banning plastic as a step toward ensuring a healthier environment, others cite unintended consequences and question how effective the measure is. Energy used in creating paper or reusable bags, especially for cotton bags, is exponentially greater than the energy and time needed to generate plastic bags. However, Slepian noted that bags made from recycled plastics and non-organic cotton, both which require less water to produce, are more popular than organic cotton bags.

"Ban The Bag" cites that the creation of plastic bags uses 96% less water than paper bags. Reusable bags also take up more space in landfills and are often not used more than 130 times, which is the amount this group claims will compensate for their energy input. "Ban The Bag" uses statistics from a study comparing plastic with organic cotton. Many reusable bags on the market are made from recycled polypropylene and not organic cotton, meaning less water is needed to produce the bags, according to Slepian.

Companies have also tried to remedy the issue of plastic pollution by labeling bags with advisory marks for recycling; Walgreens even includes "5 reuses for a plastic bag: shoe protector, dirty diaper holder, freezer bag, rubber glove and plant protector." Albertsons and Home Goods bags advertise that they are made with at least 25% and 15% recycled content respectively.

Plastic companies also employ nearly one million Americans according to the Plastics Industry Association. The Plastics Industry Association and The American Chemistry Council lobby against plastic bag bans. Seattle adopted a plastic bag ban in 2012 and has seen store owners spend 40-200% more on alternative bags according to the Plastics Industry Association. The Seattle City Council cites statistics and claims from "Environment Washington" which states that since the ban there has been a significantly lower amount of plastic entering the waters of Puget Sound.

Parting with plastic is a growing phenomenon. California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic bags and several other states have mandatory recycling programs.

Statistics about plastic, waste and new laws ironically litter the internet and signs taped to grocery store windows. But at the end of the day plastic is pollution and change is here — and it is not only tree huggers who are sporting reusable bags.


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