The city took a step in the right direction last week when it passed part of the “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance, designed to reduce the impacts of single-use carry-out plastic and paper bags by grocers and retailers in South Lake Tahoe. The city passed the ban on single-use, carry-out plastic bags, which would keep about 7.3 million plastic bags out of our local landfills, public spaces and Lake Tahoe each year, saving taxpayers money in clean-up and disposal costs and protecting our wildlife from the often fatal effects of encountering plastic bags.
The group of citizens that worked together to pass this ordinance, including Small World, Sierra Nevada Alliance, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and members of the former Sustainability Commission, had urged the council to pass the ordinance in its entirety, including a requirement that grocers and other businesses charge a 5-cent fee for paper bags, which would serve as both cost recovery for businesses, since paper bags are more expensive than plastic, and as an incentive to shoppers to bring their own reusable bags with them. The experience of other cities has shown that even a small fee has been effective in encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags.
The City Council voted not to require a fee on paper bags, but to simply ban plastic bags. We believe that inclusion of the paper bag fee benefits businesses, customers and the environment. Without the fee, the experience of other cities has shown that the vast majority of shoppers simply switch from getting “free” plastic bags to “free” paper bags. Paper bags, however, are not free. They cost between 6 and 12 cents, compared to 1 cent for plastic bags, a cost which businesses pass on to customers. While the ordinance allows for businesses to voluntarily place fees on paper bags, we understand that many business owners may be concerned about losing customers to those businesses that continue to give away bags for free.
Also, while paper bags are biodegradable and do less damage to wildlife than plastic bags, they still have significant environmental effects that may be equal to or greater than the environmental effects of plastic bags. The manufacturing of paper bags causes more air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and energy consumption than making plastic bags.
With this in mind, we feel that the ordinance would be greatly strengthened by re-adding the paper bag fee to support businesses that want to do the right thing for our local and global environment without harming their bottom line or passing the cost on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods. The City Council can and should make this change when it makes its final approval of the ordinance on Oct. 15.
The strong support of the community for the original ordinance, including the paper bag fee was evidenced by more than 1,000 signatures on a locally-circulated petition, the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s poll showing large majority support from our community, the Tribune’s pro-ban editorial, and strong Chamber member backing. We believe the community will continue to support the council in its move to reduce the impacts of all kinds of single-use bags.
As customers, whether or not your favorite grocer or retailer asks a nickel for a paper bag, we can demonstrate our support for this new ordinance by remembering to bring our own bags along every time we shop. Support those businesses — like Grassroots, Grocery Outlet, Cork and More, Sno-Flake, Gaialicious and others — that have already stepped up as leaders in our community in their support for getting the plastic out and reducing paper bags too. Choose to buy Tahoe as a sign of support of Tahoe businesses that are doing the right thing, and tell them you don’t expect a free paper bag either! And please thank Councilmembers Hal Cole, Angela Swanson and Brooke Laine for their dedication to reducing trash and disposal costs at Lake Tahoe, environmental impacts from the manufacture of bags, and unnecessary costs to consumers.
— John Friedrich is the co-founder of Small World Parents’ Network; Kay Ogden is a former member of the Sustainability Commission; and Gavin Feiger is a regional climate change program associate at Sierra Nevada Alliance.