Miles to push for plastic bag ban
Town councilor proposes ban to reduce waste, promote sustainability.
By Tram Whitehurst, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 30, 2011
Teton County last year recycled close to two and a half tons of plastic bags, the equivalent of about 400,000 individual bags.
And that’s just what was recycled. Millions more plastic bags likely went straight into the trash, though the exact amount is not known.
Those statistics are part of the reason Jackson Town Councilor Greg Miles is proposing a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags in grocery and convenience stores in town — from Albertsons to Loaf ‘N Jug.
“As a community trying to be sustainable in so many ways, it’s high time we really start this conversation in earnest,” said Miles, who raised the issue at the Nov. 21 council meeting. “The goal should be to eliminate plastic bags from the waste stream.”
How that could be accomplished in Jackson remains to be seen. Town staff is researching how other communities approach the issue, and the council is expected to discuss the proposal at a January workshop.
An increasing number of communities across the country and the globe have implemented some measures to discourage the use of plastic bags, from outright bans to charging fees to educational campaigns.
They are motivated by concerns about the environmental impact of plastic bags, which don’t biodegrade and which require a significant amount of resources, including hydrocarbons, to produce. The U.S. alone goes through 100 billion plastic bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion.
“Everywhere you go, people are either using reusable bags or paper bags,” Miles said. “We should be able to make intelligent decisions about this as a community.”
It would not be the first time Jackson has waded into the plastic bag issue.
“Bag 2 Differ,” for example, is a community initiative formed three years ago in partnership with Jackson Hole’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of plastic shopping bags and to give away reusable canvas bags.
And in 2009, the town participated in a competition hosted by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns to promote the use of reusable bags.
Miles himself raised the issue with the council earlier this year, though after a brief discussion, no vote or formal action was taken.
“Maybe we get there incrementally,” Miles said. “I don’t think the council wants to be heavy-handed about this, but I want to see if this is acceptable to the community.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that getting rid of plastic bags is the right move. The chemical and plastic industries have challenged bans and bag fees, arguing that plastic bags take up a small portion of landfills and that they cost less money and require less energy to produce than paper bags.
At the local level, some support the idea of reducing plastic waste but wonder if a ban or a charge is the best way.
Mayor Mark Barron, who was the only council member to vote against continuing a discussion on the plastic bag ban, said that, although he supports reusable bags, he is opposed to “imposing a municipal mandate for a social agenda.” He is also opposed to charging a fee for the use of plastic.
“Plastic bags are horrendous, but I don’t know if hitting people who can least afford it is the right way to go,” Barron said.
The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on a ban, but Executive Director Tim O’Donoghue questioned whether regulating plastic bag use is the best approach.
“Should this be a regulatory initiative or an education initiative?” O’Donoghue said. “Creating a ban may not be the best first step.”
Two local grocery stores offered slightly different opinions.
Gene Rey, the assistant store director at Albertsons, said it would be difficult to predict the effects of a ban on his business. He estimated the store buys 10,000 to 12,000 plastic bags a week, but said it also sells reusable bags.
“Maybe the way to do it is to provide an incentive for reusable bags instead of a punishment for plastic,” Rey said. “Maybe you get credit for bringing your own bag that you can cash in.”
Jeff Rice, owner Jackson Whole Grocer, would supports a ban as long as it applied to all grocery stores. He couldn’t say how many plastic bags his shop goes through, but he said it also sells reusable bags, and many customers have already switched to bringing their own bags.
“The world at large needs to make this transition,” Rice said, “and we’re willing to do our part.”
A leader in sustainability
A number of other cities, counties and even countries have imposed some form of plastic bag deterrent.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to ban plastic bags from grocery stores and pharmacies. A recent proposal seeks to expand the ban to all retail stores and restaurants in the city and would impose a 10 cent fee on paper bags.
Washington, D.C., is one of the latest and largest American cities to address plastic bag use, imposing a 5-cent-per-bag fee in January 2010. In the following year, plastic bag use dropped by about 60 percent.
The results have been even more striking in Ireland, the first country to introduce a plastic bag fee. Implemented in 2002, the “Plastax” uses the proceeds from a 15-cent-per-bag tax to support a green fund established to benefit the environment. The tax has resulted in a 90 percent drop in plastic bag consumption nationwide.
Some Rocky Mountain towns are also acting. Just last month, the Aspen City Council voted to ban plastic bags from the town’s grocery stores and to enact a 20-cent fee on paper bags. Basalt, Colo., approved a fee of 20 cents on plastic and paper bags in September and is considering a ban on plastic bags. Carbondale, Colo., is also considering a ban.
Although Jackson might be behind these communities in acting on plastic bags, Miles thinks the town can still show leadership on the issue.
“What a great way to be a leader in sustainability,” he said. “People come to town and see we don’t allow plastic bags. What a great statement to make.”