On August 27, Salem City Council heard the First Reading of a motion by Ward 2 Councilor Tom Andersen. Andersen’s motion supported a ban of single use plastic bags for carryout purchases in Salem.

The ordinance, which would be phased in over time, would prevent retailers from providing plastic bags at checkout. For customers who did not bring their own recyclable or reused bags, retailers would charge at least 5 cents per recyclable paper bag.

An exception would be allowed for low-income customers who received government assistance; retailers would not be required to charge these individuals for their paper bag.

Exempt would be many plastic bags such as those used to package fruit, plastic that wraps flowers, laundry dry-cleaning bags or single-use bags for prepared take-out foods, produce or meats.

If the ordinance is ultimately implemented, Salem will join eight other Oregon cities, Ashland, Corvallis, Eugene, Forest Grove, Hood River, Manzanita, McMinnville and Portland, which has banned the bag the longest, since 2011.

“Generally, both on a national and Oregon level, there appears to be satisfaction with a bag ban,” Andersen says. “Education, of both the public and the retailers, is an important element in achieving satisfaction.”

Several stores in Salem, including Trader Joe’s, LifeSource, Natural Grocers and Costco already do not use plastic bags at checkout.

In Corvallis, where plastic bags have been banned since 2013, Safeway store manager Rick says, “Most people are happy, though sometimes someone complains about paying 5 cents for paper.” When asked about the impact on the store’s profits, he says, “There has been no impact on the bottom line. Most customers bring their own bags, so that’s really positive.”

Noting the eight communities already enforcing plastic bag bans, Andersen says, “I have heard or seen no reports of municipalities anywhere being unhappy with their bans.”

Prior to making the motion on the ban, Andersen met with Michael Roth, of Roth’s Fresh Markets, to discuss the plan. Roth, whose McMinnville store has experienced the ban there since last year, endorsed the idea.

On June 5, Roth wrote the Mayor and members of Salem City Council, saying, “Roth’s encourages you to follow suit with the majority of other cities in Oregon that have successfully created a program that is good for our environment while avoiding shifting higher food costs to our customers.”

Roth noted that currently in Oregon, paper bags cost 12.3 cents while plastic bags cost 3.6 cents. But in cities like McMinnville, where a 5 cent fee for recycled paper bags is in effect as part of the ban, Roth argued that costs pencil out well enough.

“Roth’s does NOT oppose the plastic bag ban,” Roth wrote the Mayor and Council, “but we strongly encourage you to adopt the same provisions as McMinnville” who allow retailers to charge this 5 cent fee.

“Unfortunately, paper bags are much more costly than plastic and a shift in the law without the fee,” said Roth, “places the increased cost burden entirely on the retailer. This 5-cent fee will help with the extra costs incurred.”

Roth said the McMinnville ban was “working very well with the 5-cent fee. It has slightly increased our costs, but we continue to charge the same prices for groceries in McMinnville as we do in Salem.”

There is some dispute on the merits of different checkout bag options. Environmental analyses indicate that every type of carrying bag impacts ecology in some way; for example, paper bags require four times as much water for production as do plastic ones, and it takes three reuses of a paper bag to level its environmental impact to that of a plastic bag.

Still, paper bags are biodegradable and easy to recycle – while plastic bags are made from petroleum, are seldom recycled and create serious problems in municipal recycling businesses like Salem’s Garten Services.

The factor that weighs environmental opinion, finally, against grocery store plastic bags, is the particular way they don’t decompose, don’t go away and because of this, wreck havoc on land and in the sea.   

Andersen points to the Conserving Now website when citing some of the compelling reasons for rejecting plastic bags, including:

• Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade – breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits

• A plastic bag can take between 400 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment

• As plastic breaks down, particles contaminate soil and waterways and enter the food web when animals accidentally ingest them

• In the ocean, plastic particles eventually end up in massive whirlpool-like currents in the oceans called gyres. Our planet has five major gyres

• In some ocean locations, there is 46 times more plastic than available food for marine animals

• Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year

• Plastic debris accumulates persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like PCBs and DDT at high concentrations. Many of these pollutants are known endocrine disruptors

• If the food we eat is contaminated with toxins, we will be too

The proposed ban, Andersen says, “is merely one step in the City’s efforts to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable and is consistent with the City’s strategic plan goals of an environmental action plan.”

With Council now hearing the ordinance, the next step is a public hearing, scheduled to be held September 10 with a final vote to occur at some point after that. If approved, a phased implementation would likely involve larger retailers complying by April 1, 2019 and all other retail establishments participating by September 1, 2019.