We’re about to say “goodbye” to the tumblin’ urban tumbleweed. A Wednesday article in the Seattle Times highlighted Mayor Greg Nickels newest plan to help keep Seattle green. If approved by the City Council, Seattle grocery shoppers will be charged a 20 cents/bag “green fee” on every paper or plastic bag used at the grocery store. The fee would go into effect on January 1st. Judging from comments in the Times, no one seems to have seen this coming. So where did this crazy idea come from?

It boils down to two issues: the environment and money. Most people will nod their heads in agreement that plastic shopping bags and our planet’s well being don’t mingle. According to the EPA, the US alone consumes 380 billion plastic bags in a year. Even if only a fraction of these are thrown away, the environmental impact is still costly. After all, plastic never degrades – instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces. Those small plastic toxins can wreak havoc on wildlife and eco-systems.

www.fremantle.wa.gov.au

As always, the bottom-line is affected too. The Wall Street Journal estimates plastic bags cost the retail industry $4 billion a year (not counting environmental clean-up costs and other expenses). With food and energy (and most everything else) jumping in price, money spent on disposable bags is money being thrown away.

Although according to the Film and Bag Federation, plastic bags are saintly when compared against paper. Plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy, generate 80 percent less solid waste, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes, according to the federation.

So what’s the right answer, paper or plastic? According to Nickels, “the answer… should be neither. Both harm the environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us in the environment, and the best way to handle waste is not to create it in the first place.”

Although I’d love to claim Seattle blazed this trail of logic against waste, it wouldn’t be quite true. The paper/plastic bag fee idea is a pretty new idea in the US, but it is not the first of its kind. Back in 2002, Ireland established what it called a “plastax”; its own fee for plastic bags. Customers who wanted plastic bags were originally charged 15 cents per bag. Two months after the tax was put into place, the BBC reported that plastic bag use in Ireland had dropped 90%. Observers found a decrease in garbage, street litter, and drainage problems caused by plastic bags. The fee is still in place today, and plastic bag use continues to be minimal.

….. By the way, San Francisco placed a ban on plastic bags in 2007, but have yet to take a stance on paper bags.

For all the critics of this new plan, I have little sympathy. Changing a wasteful behavior on a city-wide scale is never completely painless…. but the “green-fee” is pretty close. Unlike gas taxes or carbon credit schemes, this idea is cheap. Reusable bags are easy to find and easier to use. My advice for those determined not to use a canvas bag – stock up now! If you save every paper and plastic bag from now until when this bill goes into effect, you’ll have more than enough bags to carry your groceries for years to come.

Shameless Plug:

Want to get a jump start on Seattle’s efforts to ditch paper and plastic bags? Why not start saving the planet today with your own Sustainability Is Sexy canvas tote! Impress your friends and family with this one-of-a-kind statement about the environment. It’s eco-friendly and sexy! Find your Sustainability Is Sexy shopping bag at www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com!

Plastic Bag Facts

(Poached from Reusablebags.com)

  • Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
  • According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)
  • According to the industry publication Modern Plastics, Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year—900 per person.
  • According to Australia’s Department of Environment, Australians consume 6.9 billion plastic bags each year—326 per person. An estimated .7% or 49,600,000 end up as litter each year.
  • Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.
  • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.
  • As part of Clean Up Australia Day, in one day nearly 500,000 plastic bags were collected.
  • Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.
  • According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have gone “from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere.
  • Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
  • In 2001, Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person. An extremely successful plastic bag consumption tax, or PlasTax, introduced in 2002 reduced consumption by 90%.
  • Approximately 18,000,000 liters of oil have been saved due to this reduced production. Governments around the world are considering implementing similar measures.
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If you’re like me, it takes a good cup of coffee to get your morning started off right. And if you’re even more like me, you might think about the impact your coffee habit may have. By now, a lot of us coffee drinkers have heard about things like Fair Trade, organic, and shade grown coffee. Good news! Corporate and local coffee houses are offering these environmentally sound choices to us more frequently. Chances are, if coffee that’s environmentally friendly is offered, you’ll take it.

There’s another part of your coffee addiction that has a global impact. Your coffee cup. We see them everywhere but almost never give ’em a second thought. But those lattes and americanos that keep us working hard have a bitter environmental impact. In 2006, Americans added an estimated 16 billion coffee cups to our landfills! Think about it – how many cups have you thrown away this month? This week? The waste starts to add up fast, and in more places than just landfills. The entire process is incredibly resource intensive.

Here’s where it gets worse. Disposable paper cups are made almost exclusively from fresh wood from our forests. Once the lumber is transformed into paper, it’s coated with thin plastic and pressed into a cup. That plastic helps protect your hands from hot coffee – but it also condemns your cup to a landfill. Recycling can’t be done effectively on either end of a cup’s life cycle.

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The real tragedy is that alternatives are easy and accessible. All of us have a reusable coffee mug stashed away in our kitchen, it’s just a matter of remembering to grab it on the way to work or school.

Now I’ll be honest. I’m one of those “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing” types of people. But using your own reusable coffee cup has more than just an environmental appeal. Those smart enough to remember a cup are often treated to a discount at coffee houses. Considering that most reusable coffee cups have life expectancies of 5 to 10 years, those discounts can add up. As an additional bonus, bringing your own cup helps out your favorite coffee house. Disposable cups are one of the largest costs to local shops, and most places would love to cut down on their expensive overhead.

suscup.pngUsing your cup has more personal benefits as well. Reusable cups tend to keep your hot coffee hot and your cold drinks cold. If you’ve ever experienced a winter in Seattle, you know a mocha can go from hot to luke-warm in just a few minutes. Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy your drink leisurely instead of chugging it down or throwing away the last few sips?

The next time you’re getting ready to leave the house, think about drinking responsibly and bringing a reusable coffee cup. It’s quick and convenient, easy and painless. Not only will you be saving yourself money, you’ll be doing something good for the planet too.

For more in-depth information regarding sustainable coffee cups and disposable cups, please visit www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com