Recycling plastic bags may be better than ban

The ban doesn't get rid of the bags, as some businesses will still be allowed to use them and consumers can still buy them.

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It's difficult to make a reasoned argument against banning plastic shopping bags that would carry enough weight to sway supporters of the bans. But it is hard to swallow being forced to buy cloth bags and having to remember to take them with you when you need to stop at the grocery store. Or even worse, to have to pay a nickel a bag for paper.

Seattle recently became the latest city to ban the plastic bags. Council members' overriding concern was to eliminate the bags as a source of litter in Puget Sound. That's a noble gesture.

But it also may be a futile one. The plastic bags will still be allowed to be used for produce, bulk foods and meat. Restaurants will still use them for takeout food, and food banks and farmers' markets can still use them.

Seattle groceries should prepare for irate customers who will either be upset because their items were put into too many paper bags or who demand replacement for damaged goods when overloaded paper bags rip apart.

Chances are people won't be carrying cloth bags into retail stores, which will also have to eliminate the plastic bags and charge for paper bags. This may drive retailers crazy as shoplifters will now have another tool.

The ban may also be penny-wise, pound-foolish. The plastics industry, which obviously has a big stake in this, says the bags represent only a fraction of the trash that ends up in Puget Sound. It also points out that paper bags use more resources and cost more to manufacture and transport.

People who have given the plastic bags a secondary use to line trash cans or pick up dog waste will still be able to use them, but they will have to buy them. Or they may decide to leave the dog waste where it is and to dirty up the water by hosing out their wastebaskets instead of using a plastic bag for a liner.

The Seattle Public Utilities estimates residents use 292 million plastic bags and 69 million paper bags per year. It guesses that 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Recycled? These light-weight plastic bags can be recycled? Has anyone tried educating the public to that fact?

The odds are pretty good that recycling of plastic bags would rise if the public was given a choice: either increase the amount of recycling of plastic bags or lose the convenience of them. If the goal is to reduce plastic bags in Puget Sound then the recycling effort might even do better than a ban at grocery stores and retail businesses.

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