One of life’s little ironies concerns those plastic grocery sacks ubiquitous to just about every grocery and drug store and many others.
Remember when those were first introduced, back in the 1980s? Using them was considered friendly to the environment.
The alternative — brown paper sacks — required felling huge forests each year. Every plastic sack saved a bit of a shade-producing, carbon dioxide-consuming tree.
Hundreds of billions of that nettlesome Swedish invention later, we are reckoning with environmental and other issues they present.
Most of them are made from natural gas. When they degrade, which is slowly, they release chemicals into the groundwater.
They stuff our landfills, kill some wildlife, blow along our streets and get hung up in out-of-reach branches, too. They mar the environment.
Just take a walk on the Roanoke River greenway, as I did Tuesday, and keep your eyes peeled on waterside trees. You’ll spot those little litter flags fluttering in the breeze.
Today, Roanoke mowing crews spend as much time cleaning up litter as they do mowing grass on municipal land along city streets, City Manager Chris Morrill said.
The bags account for about 10 percent of the refuse mowing crews clean up, said city public works director Bob Bengtson. Unlike many other types of litter, the potential damage they can cause by getting fouled in mowing equipment is significant, he added.
Translation: City taxpayers, you’re footing the bill for those cleanup efforts.
That’s one of the reasons we should pay attention to a couple of bills floated in the General Assembly. One, by a Henrico County lawmaker, would impose a 20-cent tax on plastic grocery bags to discourage shoppers from using them.
Another bill, by Del. Onzlee Ware, would require that hair-thin plastic bags be thick enough to make them worth re-using.
That way, shoppers would be more likely to reuse them, and fewer would end up in public landfills, or as litter that needs to be cleaned up, reasons Ware, D-Roanoke.
“We need to raise the issue and talk about whether there’s something different we can be doing here,” said Ware, who’s opposed to a per-bag tax or fee.
A nickel-per-bag tax added in Washington, D.C. last year cut Washingtonians’ use of plastic by 86 percent — from 22 million bags per month to 3 million in January alone.
Back in November, when Roanoke.com conducted an unscientific web poll about plastic grocery sacks, 579 people cast ballots.
The question was: “Would you support restrictions on plastic bags?
About 34 percent voted “No, leave them alone.” Another 15 percent voted for a fee on the bags. And 48 percent said they should be banned.
Wednesday, I conducted my own man-on-the-parking-lot poll outside Kroger at Towers Shopping Center.
Greg Land, who was wheeling a shopping cart full of brown-paper-sack groceries through the parking lot, said a per-bag fee on plastic sacks “would be ridiculous.” In his house, “We recycle all the bags we use.”
“I wouldn’t be willing to pay a fee for them,” agreed Lloyd Hairston. “It’s like buying something you don’t have a purpose for.”
Brenda Dearing said she wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a ban, provided Kroger gave away those reusable mesh sacks the grocery chain now sells for 99 cents each.
My wife uses those mesh bags. They’re far superior to plastic, because you can get more groceries into them. And they’re far superior to paper bags because they don’t rip.
But as for a fee, Dearing added,“I can hardly pay for my food now.”
Lobbyists for merchants already have lined up against bag legislation, which they argue could force retailers to pass along higher costs to customers.
Ware is right the issue should be talked about, perhaps studied.
But if you haven’t noticed, good sense is about as rare in Richmond these days as statues of Yankee generals.
So those bag bills are probably doomed.