Thursday, April 22, 2010

148. Little efforts by all have big impact

Just how much do people hate paying taxes? Right down to the nickel, according to a new law in Washington D.C. that created a five-cent tax per plastic shopping bag. The result of the tax was astonishing--after one month, the number of plastic bags used by consumers decreased from 22.5 million to just 3 million.

Plastic bags might seem to be a bit insignificant because they are so freely distributed; they are thin and handy when used to carry our groceries from the store to the kitchen. However, the reality is that over one billion plastic bags are handed out, for "free," each day. Of course, in reality, nothing is free, and plastic bags cost retailers about $4 billion dollars each year-resulting in higher prices for consumers.

Beyond the cost, plastic bags are notorious in the environmental realm. A single bag, made from petroleum, toxic chemicals, and energy, takes up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. Those that do not make it into the landfill are often found littering our neighborhoods. Remarkably, only about three percent are actually recycled. In addition to the human impact, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of animals, often sea turtles, whales and even cows and goats, are killed each year when the bags are mistaken for food and ingested.

This is one situation where I don't care how we get there, as long as we get there. It is a shame that it takes a five-cent tax to inspire people to act responsibly--that a lowly nickel is all that it takes to overcome the inconvenience of carrying around a reusable bag. Really, is the environment not worth a nickel on its own merits?

I would be in favor for any measure that "taxed" people for their waste-whether it is the use of plastic bags or it is a per bag charge for garbage placed on the curb each week (in places that have not adopted the blue bins). While punitive measures may be more effective, I would also be in favor of rewards for those people who produce less waste. At Target, they give you a five-cent credit when you use a reusable bag. Again, while people might be inspired by financial reasons, more than environmental ones, I would subscribe to "whatever it takes."

We often hear, from both political parties, of the incredible debt we are leaving to our grandchildren. Is there a similar concern over the environmental debt we are creating or the continued waste of natural resources? Which might we find to be more difficult to repay?

The scale of change is immaterial; a little can make a big difference. Oberlin continues their environmental push and there is no reason why Amherst, or Lorain, or Lorain County cannot follow their lead-and the lead of other progressive cities. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, want clean water, healthy air, and un-littered neighborhoods.

Washington D.C. is using the tax revenue to clean up the Anacostia River, which is an obvious use of the tax dollars. And while that makes sense, I would not really care what the money was used for-let competing interests fight it out. It's about doing the right thing, no matter how we get there.