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If you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, then Cambridge is not the place for you.
Last week, Cambridge became the largest city on the East Coast to outlaw single-use plastic bags when the Cambridge City Council passed the ban by an eight to one vote; the measure also imposed a fee on the use of paper bags. In doing so, Cambridge joined a list of over 100 American cities that have banned plastic bags in checkout aisles. The City Council justified the legislation as a “public purpose” that achieved several environmental goals, including the preservation of aquatic areas and the reduction of carbon emissions. In particular, Cambridge officials highlighted the permanent nature of plastic pollution as a motivation for the ordinance.
As dangerous as such pollution appears, the problem of plastic bags clearly fits into a larger challenge—namely, the problem of sustainability. In the past, we have emphasized the generation-defining power of climate change, and we continue to maintain this position. Every increase—even from sources as seemingly unimportant as paper bags—in environmental efficiency matters; we applaud the city council for at least considering measures that combat climate change.
Moreover, limiting plastic-bag use represents a relatively painless way to attack the problem of carbon emissions, especially compared to some of the other alternatives. Few people derive extra satisfaction from shoveling groceries into a single-use plastic bag instead of a multi-use canvas bag. As such, by reducing social reliance on plastic (and paper) bags, the City Council was able to tackle at least one component of the larger environmental issue without forcing individuals to completely transform their day-to-day lifestyles.
At the same time, while we believe that the intent of the City Council’s decision is laudable, we do not see a ban as the ideal way of fulfilling this goal. There is a significant difference between a law that controls plastic bags and a law that outlaws plastic bags. In this latter case, an outright ban needlessly provokes debate about personal choice; the divisiveness of a ban—whether or not that controversy is warranted—is unproductive. By making plastic bags illegal in checkout lines, the city council achieves a desirable objective through an undesirable method.
In place of a stringent ban, a tax on plastic bags promises to reduce use without stirring up as many grumpy consequences. Not only will Cambridge lower reliance on single-use bags, but the city will also drum up some money in the process. Although a small fee may not seem likely to alter consumer behavior, case studies indicate otherwise. Both the extra price and a newfound awareness of the environmental impact of plastic bags influence decisions.
By adopting a strategy of taxing plastic bags, the City Council could have combined all the benefits of an outright ban with few of the drawbacks. Nevertheless, we believe that the intent of the measure was in the right spirit. In truth, the biggest downside will likely be the lack of bags to scoop up dog poop.
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