Let’s recycle plastic shopping bags like we do computers, televisions

January 21, 2013 

Thurston County has joined a handful of other communities around the state in the debate about whether to ban plastic shopping bags.

As a whole, retailers oppose such bans. But the convenient bags, often re-used by consumers in a number of ways, suddenly have become “a problem” for those interested in reducing litter. A county solid waste advisory committee is spending the next several months trying to convince local governments to ban the bags.

The Washington Retail Association prefers a national or statewide approach to the issue. Otherwise, it becomes an unnecessary and illogical burden on retailers forced to sort through a patchwork of ordinances, each of which might approach the issue differently and contain different requirements.

For years, plastic bags have been an accepted retail staple and the preference for most shoppers. Among their advantages, plastic bags protect merchandise from the Northwest’s rainy climate better than paper or reusable bags.

As retailers, we favor maintaining as much consumer choice as possible, including continuing to offer shoppers plastic, paper or reusable bags. Our support of plastic bags, however, goes well beyond maintaining convenience.

Too often, communities that ban bags are tempted to tack fees on as disincentives to use paper. Such tactics burden consumers, to which retailers also object.

The retail industry fully supports protecting the environment but is unconvinced strict bans are the best way to reduce litter. One result could be increased demand for paper, which itself has potentially negative environmental outcomes.

The county’s current approach also worsens a problem retailers have with the community-by-community approach to banning plastic bags. It has resulted in a slowly-growing patchwork of bans across the state, robbing some consumers of a popular choice while leaving retailers with a constantly changing list of communities where they can and cannot offer the bags for use.

Rather than continuing this scattershot approach, retailers believe the fairest idea is to maintain the choices consumers now enjoy with a renewed statewide commitment to recycling plastic bags. Our state has gotten off to a great start in recent years offering consumers the free option of recycling old televisions and computers.

There’s no good reason to doubt we also can get behind recycling plastic bags. Among other things, they get reused in the manufacture of reusable bags.

Jan Teague is president and chief executive of the Olympia-based Washington Retail Association, which represents retailers operating in 2,800 locations. She can be reached at jteague@retailassociation.org.

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