Feb 22, 2010 8:12 AM by By MELISSA EDDY Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - For decades the standard question at U.S. grocery store check-out counters has been "Paper or Plastic?" But since January, consumers in the U.S. capital have faced a different question: "Will you pay 5 cents for a bag?"
Europeans have long accepted the idea of providing their own baskets, bags or nets to carry their purchases, or paying for bags.
But in the United States, where retailers go out of their way to cater to customers' needs, being given a free paper or plastic bag to carry purchases is largely taken for granted. So not all Washingtonians are pleased.
"I think it's unnecessary," said Daniel Koroma, 57, as he toted groceries home from a supermarket in a plastic bag that he'd paid for. "They sell you the groceries, they should give you something to put them in."
While one major city, San Francisco, has banned plastic bags, Washington's law is the first of its kind in the United States. It is being carefully watched by activists who hope that one strong success will prove the tipping point for a program aimed at reducing litter, pollution and waste.
"Whichever state is going to pull this off is going to have the potential to be seen as the one that has cracked this problem," said Vincent Cobb, founder of reuseit.com Web site that promotes recycling and sells reuseable bags.
Whether Washington's law will prove to be a trendsetter remains to be seen. The issue has sparked debate and many shoppers would rather juggle items in their arms or drive to stores in neighboring states where bags are still free.
Adding to the debate over the law is that while it was aimed at supermarkets, it has ended up applying to anyone selling edible items, including bookshops, clothing stores and small gift shops.
But some Washington residents have embraced it. Twana
Littlejohn, who manages a Starbucks, said she feels good knowing that she's doing something for the planet her grandchildren will inherit.
"I've stocked reusable bags in my car so whenever I go shopping, I just have to pull one out," Littlejohn said. "It's not hard."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 3,960 thousand tons of plastics waste, including bags, sacks, and wraps was generated in 2008. Of those, barely 1 percent were recycled.
The agency does not keep statistics on the effectiveness of fees or bans on bags.
"These programs are still new in the U.S.," said EPA
spokeswoman Tisha Petteway.
In 2002, Ireland enacted a nationwide mandate to charge a fee of 15 cents per bag on all plastic bags. According to the Irish government agency that monitors the program, it has reduced annual plastic bag use from an estimated 328 to 21 per person.
San Francisco enacted its ban in 2007 and similar legislation is to take effect in July in Los Angeles, where shoppers will be charged 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable one. But attempts by other U.S. cities and states to curb the predominance of plastic shopping bags have been rejected, most notably in eco-friendly West
Coast city of Seattle, where voters last August overturned
legislation to charge 20 cents per bag.
Keith Christman, Managing Director of Plastics Markets for the American Chemistry Council argues that Seattle's attempt to charge for bags angered residents who were already overwhelmingly recycling and reusing their bags, which he says is the better option.
"Every time you get an opportunity to reuse a bag like that, you get a chance to prevent another one being made," Christman said.
Proponents counter that fees, such as that in Washington, have a positive fallout effect, forcing consumers to consider whether they really need a bag.
Littlejohn says in the weeks since the law's enactment, she has seen a drop in demand for the recycled paper sacks that Starbucks hands out, although they are still free.
"I'm not giving out as many anymore," Littlejohn said "I'm cutting down on my paper costs."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)