Plastic tax aired in campaign for reusable bags

Grant Welker

Tailpipes, smokestacks and oil refineries spewing pollutants used to be the images of environmental havoc, able to represent the toll that industry has taken on the planet. Now, the plastic bag has become the new bad guy.

San Francisco has banned the petroleum-based bags in large grocery stores, Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts have considered bans, fines or taxes, and Boston has considered a citywide ban.

Last year, Sen. Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, filed a bill that would charge consumers 2 cents per plastic bag, with revenue split between state recycling programs and the store to increase consumer awareness. The tax would gradually increase to 15 cents over seven years.

“It would gently prod consumer behavior,” Joyce said. “It’s not an extreme measure by any sense.”

Joyce had a college intern research the impact of plastic bags after a woman from Sharon asked the senator’s office to look into the issue. “We found some startling facts,” Joyce said.

The tax would apply only to large supermarkets, and exceptions would be made for ice, fish, meat and poultry. Paper bags would not be taxed, and reusable bags would be tax-deductible.

Most grocery stores large and small now sell reusable bags as options.

Lees Market in Westport sells reusable bags for 99 cents, though owner Albert Lees said the Central Village store often gives many away, too. For Earth Day, Lees Market will give away the bags and only use those or paper bags for groceries.

A “core constituency” of customers has always been into recycling, Lees said, and the store has seen an “incremental increase” in the general use of its reusable bags. “We hope that more and more people will accelerate their use of the reusable bags to promote environmental friendliness,” he added.

Stop & Shop stores offer plastic bag recycling and encourage people to use reusable bags, said spokesman Robert Keane. When stores began selling the bags about a year ago, he said, “they were so popular, it was tough to keep them in stock.”

From April 18 to 24, Stop & Shop stores are offering five free reusable bags with the purchase of $15 worth of select General Mills products. Beginning May 9, Stop & Shop will take five cents off a total shopping bill for each reusable bag brought from home.

Shaw’s Supermarkets have also been selling a variety of 99-cent canvas bags in its stores. The bags, especially around Earth Day, have “been selling well,” spokeswoman Karen Pierce said. Neither retailer would release information on how many bags they have sold.

The environmental Web site says the plastic bag is “a powerful symbol of consumerism gone wild.” Citing the Environmental Protection Agency, the group says 380 billion plastic bags, wraps and sacks are consumed in the United States annually. Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide, and billions end up as trash, the group said.

Joyce said his bill has “been met with great receptivity” from the people he’s spoken to. He’s confident the bill — which could be voted on in May or June — will pass eventually.

Joyce’s bill was modeled after programs in Ireland, which charges 15 cents per plastic bag; in San Francisco, where the city council enacted an outright ban in large grocery stores; and retailer Ikea’s system of charging 5 cents per bag.

“The consumer awareness from articles like this is itself a victory,” Joyce said. “It helps make people aware that with very little effort, they can help improve our environment.”

The plastic bag tax bill does have its detractors, however. The Massachusetts Food Association, which represents the grocery and supermarket industry, has testified that the tax is the wrong approach.

“It’s not the right time with the looming recession and price increases in food,” said association president Chris Flynn. “Consumers don’t need to be taxed and burdened any further.”

The problem isn’t the bags themselves, Flynn said, but a lack of consumer education. Both paper and plastic bags can be reused around the house for storing things, can be used as trash bags or to hold recyclables, he said, and most grocery stores collect used plastic bags for recycling. Some plastic bag bans have only led to sharp increases in sales of plastic trash bags, he added.

“The key is to recycle all of it,” Flynn said. “We don’t need to tax or bribe consumers to do the right thing.”

Joyce said resistance from the Massachusetts Food Association is unfortunate. “More and more retailers are realizing that good environmental practices are indeed good for business.”

Some argue that paper bags actually require more energy to produce than plastic. But, Lees said, there is an advantage to using paper. “People tend to use it again, either at the store or around the house. Plus, plastic blows around and gets stuck in trees or against fences.”

Flynn agrees that paper is no better than plastic. The number of plastic bags in one trailer is equal to seven trailers worth of paper bags, he said.

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