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Paper, potato or pennies?

Biodegradable shopping bags are one alternative. Allowing fees for plastic sacks is a better idea.

January 11, 2008

The relationship between economics and environmentalism is something politicians and activists seldom get right, though it's interesting to note that the communist government of China seems clearer on the concept than the government of San Francisco -- or the state of California. Fortunately, when it comes to phasing out plastic shopping bags, Los Angeles County is looking west rather than north for role models.

Those plastic bags handed out by grocery stores, takeout restaurants and other retailers are an environmental catastrophe. They're petroleum-based nuisances that take generations to break down, clogging our rivers and storm drains, polluting our parks and threatening marine life. San Francisco's response last year was to ban them outright. In the City by the Bay, the question isn't paper or plastic but paper or potato; stores can no longer offer plastic bags, but they can offer biodegradable alternatives made from potato-starch or cornstarch.

The trouble with this approach is that it amounts to a hidden tax. Plastic bags cost stores about a penny each, while biodegradable alternatives cost from 4 to 8 cents. Those extra costs are being passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for food and other goods. The starch bags also don't entirely solve the pollution problem because they may never break down in landfills, which are sealed to prevent water seepage and thus "mummify" everything dumped in them, biodegradable or not.

There's a smarter way, as China demonstrated this week. It announced Tuesday that ultra-thin plastic bags would be banned, while stores could continue to offer thicker ones as long as they charge a fee for them. This is similar to an initiative in Ireland, where stores now charge 25 cents for plastic bags; consumption has dropped 95% as consumers opt instead to carry their groceries in reusable cloth totes. Charging for plastic bags properly taxes those who use the bags, has proved to be highly effective and creates a new revenue stream -- the proceeds from the fee can be used to clean up litter.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has studied the fee approach, and some supervisors clearly favor it, but there's one major problem: It's illegal in California. One of the more boneheaded bills of the 2006 legislative session forbade municipalities from imposing fees on plastic shopping bags. The intent of the bill, AB 2449, was to mandate in-store bag recycling programs, but the provision on fees prevents local governments from taking vastly more effective measures to fight plastic pollution.

On Jan. 22, the supervisors are expected to vote on a motion calling on the Legislature to repeal that provision, and also to implement a statewide fee on plastic shopping bags. The board should pass it, and the Legislature should show that it has at least as much economic common sense as Chinese central planners by following through.

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