Oregon must target climate change, not plastic bags

Published in The Oregonian (Nov. 17, 2019): https://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/2019/11/opinion-oregon-must-target-climate-change-not-plastic-bags.html

By Kumar Venkat

My local grocery store recently decided that it would no longer offer single-use carryout plastic bags, presumably to get a head start on Oregon’s upcoming ban on such bags. I, for one, had always saved and reused these bags, usually as garbage can liners, so I got at least two uses out of them. I now buy garbage bags that are made of heavier plastic and hence create more carbon emissions than the flimsy grocery bags.

Data from California shows in fact that purchase of plastic trash bags spikes dramatically when disposable plastic bags are banned. That is not the only unintended consequence. Some customers end up taking home paper bags that have a demonstrably higher carbon footprint than plastic bags of the same carrying capacity.

Consider the best-case scenario: Even if every shopper in this country replaced all plastic grocery bags with reusable bags and purchased no additional trash bags, the emissions savings would be minuscule. Single-use plastic bags already have the smallest carbon footprint to produce as many studies have shown. All things considered, the choice of bags would make essentially no difference in the battle against climate change.

But isn’t tackling the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans one of the aims of this ban? Yes, but less than 1 percent of the world’s plastic waste that is litter or improperly disposed of originates in the United States. We are just not a big enough plastics polluter to help solve this problem.

A year after the ban went into effect in California, the number of plastic bags in the state’s beach litter dropped by more than half, but the actual amount of bag waste saved was less than 750 pounds. We can expect to save significantly less than that in Oregon, which has about one-tenth of California’s population.

Waste reduction in and of itself is a good thing, but we should just be aware that this particular ban might not yield a return proportional to the combined efforts of Oregonians to comply with it. It is a small environmental victory to savor after the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in the summer, but by no means a replacement for meaningful action.

The real existential threat to Oregon and the nation is climate change. The United States is the second largest carbon polluter in the world, so it is logical for states to take the lead on climate given a lack of response at the federal level.Share your opinionSubmit your essay of 500-700 words on a highly topical issue or a theme of particular relevance to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and the Portland area to commentary@oregonian.com. Please include your email and phone number for verification.

The Oregon climate bill failed largely because of a lack of public appetite for higher fossil fuel prices. Even though the bill would have provided refunds to lower-income Oregonians, there was no way to fully mitigate the disproportionate share of the burden placed on individuals and businesses in rural areas. We need to bring a majority of Oregonians on board by addressing real concerns like these.

Some ideas to consider: exempt the trucking industry for some number of years by offsetting their fuel cost increases through refunds (after all, we all benefit from the products the trucks deliver), help rural Oregonians purchase more efficient vehicles, and perhaps provide other refunds or tax credits in the short term to close the urban-rural divide on this issue.

Climate legislation is going to be much more difficult than banning plastic bags, but climate is the real crisis crying out for a solution.

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