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Saving on carrying charges

State weighs cost of plastic bags on the environment
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Given a choice, North Auburn’s Charles Thompson said he’ll opt to carry his groceries out — without a bag — if conservation-aware state lawmakers decide to attach a fee to plastic bags. “I’d carry them out in my hands or in a cart if I was charged,” Thompson said, with a slight shrug of his shoulders. It’s not the Thompson is upset with the idea of the charge. He’ll just go with an alternative that will allow him to pocket the savings. Thompson is a self-described recycler. That includes recyclable plastic bags from stores that go into a separate bag to bring back to supermarkets that have bins to put them in. “We’ve been doing it for 10 years,” Thompson said. “Why throw them away?” That’s what state legislators have been asking in recent months, with two bills in the Assembly expressly tackling the weighty issue of what to do with all those plastic grocery store bags piling up in landfills, littering the ground and waterways, and using up more petrochemical resources. A ton of plastic is made with 3.85 barrels of oil and much of the finished product is virtually indestructible — a bag can last an estimated 500 years in a landfill. San Francisco was the first city in North America to act, ordering a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores and large pharmacies two years ago. Shoppers there now have the alternative of using their own cloth bags, paper bags from the store or biodegradable alternatives. “I know it’s costing stores quite a lot,” said Auburn’s Cassandra Siegel, who said she tries to ask for paper bags rather than plastic. “California definitely needs something like a charge for bags.” But it’s generally a hard sell. The American Plastics Council estimates that 80 percent of the nation’s groceries are now carried in plastic bags. Philadelphia’s city council just this past week rejected a free plastic-bag ban, with a 25-cent fee applied. But Los Angeles is set to institute a ban similar to San Francisco’s next year. There are no local bag bans in Placer County communities, although Auburn City Councilman Bill Kirby, a member of the multi-jurisdictional Solid Waste Local Task Force, said the time may be here to look at charging the end-users for plastic products. Kirby said the cost of plastic bags — from increased landfill space to cleanup in parks and beaches should be calculated — could be calculated and then applied to a charge that shoppers would have to bear if they decide to use a plastic product to cart their groceries. It would be on the same lines as the cost now charged for bottle purchases, he said. “The only part the government should get is the cost,” Kirby said. So far, state legislation being proposed has pegged an arbitrary charge of 25 cents a bag at point of sale if stores provide single-use plastic bags. One bill would channel the money to create a bag-pollution fund to funnel grants to cities and counties for litter cleanup and source reduction. The other would require stores to collect fees and money would go into the state’s general-purpose account. Auburn Patricia Lewis said she usually will get paper, when given a choice of bag materials. “It’s down to the choice of killing a tree or an animal,” she said. “Those bags can get wrapped around them and kill them.” Any encouragement to opt for plastic-bag alternatives would help the Western Placer County Regional Landfill out. Stephanie Thompson, junior engineer, said that because there is no market for the bags, they’re not taken out of the waste stream for recycling. Basically, what’s tossed in the garbage stays in the garbage, Thompson said. At the same time, people who unknowingly bag their plastic and place them in the garbage bin will still see it end up in the landfill. That goes for items with recycle symbols as well as those that don’t, she said. The regional waste authority does encourage alternatives, including handing out cloth bags at events like Fast Fridays and Auburn Cruise Nite. The next appearance at Fast Fridays will be July 24. The authority will also have an informational booth all four days at the Gold Country Fair in Auburn. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or comment at Auburnjournal.com