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The Journal Gazette

  • Tote bags have become a popular alternative for environmentally conscious shoppers looking to get away from plastic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017 1:00 am


It's in the bag

Effort to stem plastic use must sidestep lawmakers

Plastic facts

According to Bring Your Bag Bloomington, part of the Center for Sustainable Living: 

• Worldwide, consumers use an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags each year – nearly 2 million a minute.

• On average, plastic bags are used for 12 minutes before being discarded.

• The average American family takes home about 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year.

• Fewer than 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the U.S.


According to the environmental news site Eco Watch:

• Plastic constitutes about 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.

• One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans.

• Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).

In 2016, an anti-home rule law designed to stop Bloomington from instituting a rule against disposable plastic bags in groceries and other stores was passed by the Indiana legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Pence.

This was a disappointment to environmentalists who had hoped Bloomington's effort to ban the bags would succeed and spread to other Indiana locations. Limiting the use of disposables can save energy and resources, reduce pollution, and protect animals – particularly marine life. And unlike some environmental protection strategies, there seems to be no downside in terms of economic costs.

While Indiana lawmakers were indulging in one of their “let's protect local communities from themselves” jags, Chicago was going in the opposite direction. In February, the city began to charge retail customers who asked for paper or plastic a 7-cents-per-bag tax. Two cents went to the retailer; five cents went to the city.

This week, the Chicago Tribune reported the surcharge is beginning to have an effect on city residents, many of whom seem to have quickly adopted the habit of taking a reusable bag when they go shopping.

Researchers found a little fewer than half the customers at large grocery stores asked for disposable bags during the first month after the tax was instituted – a third fewer than in the month before the change. The average use was one bag per customer, down from a pre-tax rate of 2.3 bags per customer.

The new tax is raising less money than anticipated. But in this case, less is more, in terms of environmental impact. The city had projected public revenue from the charges on disposable bags would reach $9.2 million this year. But by July 25, the tax had only raised $3 million.

Any official local efforts to reduce plastic-bag use are impossible in Indiana as long as the legislature's ban remains in place. Even if those state restrictions were lifted, another tax, no matter how environmentally beneficial, would be a tough sell in Fort Wayne.

But change for the better doesn't have to be driven by government action. A recent survey showed most Hoosiers are concerned about the environment and want to address pollution, climate change and protection of wildlife. Could citizens, organizations and businesses here do more to encourage shoppers to carry reusable bags?