ByDan Robertson

May 10, 2014

paper_or_plasticDo you remember years ago when groceries came home in paper bags? They used to be carried out by pimply-faced high school kids and loaded into the back of your wood paneled station wagon. They didn’t fall over; they didn’t spill their contents all over your trunk, and you could simply burn, toss or use them again. That all started to change in 1982 when supermarket chains started offering consumers a choice, “paper or plastic”.

Before paper bags completely disappeared from the majority of grocery store checkout lines customers would be asked, “Paper or plastic?”. Plastic bags were heralded as the eco-friendly alternative to paper bags. Well, as they say, that was then and this is now and soon in Dallas Texas, the answer will be neither, unless you want to pay more.

Like most big cities, Dallas has a problem with trash, and one councilman believes that eliminating plastic shopping bags is the answer to that problem. So he did what politicians do; he introduced an ordinances designed to end the problem. And, like many ordinance passed at the local level, it seems this was launched without any real thought as to its actual effectiveness.

By their very nature, plastic bags pose a greater risk to the environment as well as the trash problem than paper bags. After all, they are lighter and, therefore, much better at catching a ride on the wind to pollute our streets and waterways. A breeze that wouldn’t phase a paper bag is enough to send a plastic bag racing across the landscape. So perhaps they are a significant part of the trash that litters our streets. So what to do?

What did the city leaders decide to do about the problem of wayward plastic bags? Enforce the anti-littering ordinances already on the books? Perhaps start a public education effort to encourage people to take better care of their trash, maybe even pick up some litter once in a while? Nope, not even close.

Well, what about just banning their use in the city? Nope, they didn’t go there either, that would have had an actual impact on the problem, therefore, not even a consideration. We must remember, they need to have something to do and the ordinance this later is their version of a job retention program.

Instead of going after people who toss their trash in the streets, which is the root cause of the city’s litter problem, or simply removing them from circulation, the council took a different path. They recycled and dumbed down a plan adopted decades ago to deal with empty soda cans along the side of the road.

In the early 1970’s many states decided to combat roadside litter by placing a deposit on every soda and beer bottle or can sold. Having to save your cans and then take them back to the store is a time consuming and messy process. Still, I will concede that it has been somewhat effective. Even if someone doesn’t care about the nickel deposit and throws their cans out the window someone else could pick it up and return it and claim the deposit. As a kid, I spent many summer afternoons riding my bike up and down the roads around where I lived hunting for abandoned cans and bottles.

I say that it was somewhat effective because each year states across the nation reap a windfall as millions of dollars worth of deposits go unclaimed.

Apparently members of the Dallas City Council decided that since it worked for soda cans, it might even work for wayward plastic bags. And with that thought in mind they have levied a five cent environmental tax on plastic shopping bags. It seems this is a dumb and ineffective ordinance with little or no chance of achieving its stated goal. San Francisco—the first city in the United States to ban single-use plastic bags— also started out wanting to tax plastic shopping bags.

That set a precedent for the rest of the state and eventually, the country. In California, where a new municipal bag ban is seemingly passed every month, the latest round of bans tends to include a fee imposed on paper bags as well.

San Francisco’s original 17-cent tax on plastic bags was declared illegal and so the city changed gears, now requiring merchants to charge a 10-cent fee on all bags. The significant difference is that merchants in San Francisco get to keep the fee while merchants in Dallas are just tax collectors for the city of Dallas.

However, in my opinion this is more about fleecing the citizens of Dallas with yet another new tax than about eliminating litter or cleaning up the environment. The plan adopted by the city council imposes a five cent tax on every plastic bag. City workers are already re-busy writing job descriptions and getting ready to hire more government employees to manage the program and expand government even more. Based on the how things went in California there is no doubt in my mind that lawyers will be in court arguing over this for years to come. Collecting taxes from the citizens of Dallas to pay lawyers to defend the tax on plastic bags isn’t my idea of good recycling.

If you want to do something about waste and trash blowing around the streets, then do something that will actually for accomplish the goal. New taxes, a new bureaucracy, and more government red tape merchants aren’t going to get a single plastic bag off the streets of Dallas. As Europe found out the hard way, it won’t stop people shopping, and the plastic bags will still get dumped and tossed to flutter all over the place. All that will happen is we will pay more for it and … Dallas City Council gets a pay rise.

That’s my opinion; your mileage may vary. Agree or disagree, let me know what you are thinking.

By Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is a true “southern gentleman”. He resides in the Dallas Texas area. He is a guest writer for Earth 911 as well as a dear friend. He loves long walks in the park and home made picnics.