The Price of Getting Our Green On in Corvallis

In Corvallis, the Sierra Club is trying to push through a ban on plastic bags combined with a fee on paper bags to “encourage use of reusable bags.” It makes a certain sort of sense on the outside. We all love the environment and want to live in a clean city. But we also want an equitable community and the only way to create an equitable community is to carefully consider the implications of our policies on every part of that community.

This means that as much as a bag ban might make environmentalists and street cleanup crews happy and as much as it might make business owners and many consumers unhappy, it could also have very tangible effects on the people in our community who live in poverty. In all of the hullaboo around this controversial policy recommendation, this is the one population that hasn’t even been mentioned.

That could be because numerous studies have come to the conclusion that reusable bags are not necessarily more environmentally friendly than their plastic bag counterparts, especially if produced in mass quantities, and that they may also increase the risk of certain kinds of bacterial infections. It could be because some companies are making a mint on this new fad. Or it could be because people who live in poverty don’t often have the knowledge or the means to learn about potential policies that impact their lives and certainly don’t have the money to fight back (and consequently, aren’t likely to be major donors to either organizations or politicians on either side of the issue). They are, however, consumers.

I come at this subject from the perspective of someone who has lived in significant poverty and continues to be ‘borderline middle class’ (my term; not a sociological term). Consider the following:

  1. At 40 hours per week making minimum wage, an individual grosses $352 per week or roughly $1524 per month. Most working poor work less than full time.
  2. A person receiving Supplemental Security Income for a disability receives $867 per month. A person receiving Social Security Retirement receives little more than that.
  3. If a family qualifies for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, they might receive around $500 per month. This is for a family with children.

Now let’s put that in context:

  1. The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Corvallis is around $1,000. This rarely includes electricity.
  2. The Section 8 waiting list is about 3.5 years long in Linn and Benton Counties.
  3. SNAP (formerly food stamps) seldom covers all of the food needs for a household. SNAP will not pay the 5 cent fee for a paper bag. 2 in 3 seniors who are eligible for SNAP don’t receive it.

So if a household is using the bulk of their income on rent, still has other bills, and needs to pay for food, 5 cents per bag can add up rather quickly. So they should just reusable bags, right? Well, reusable bags cost around $1 at most places. $1 is a lot of money when you already don’t have the money to pay your regular bills and a family of 4 would need several of them (how many reusable bags would you need in order to carry a cart-full of groceries?).

There is also a potential health equity issue. People and families who live in poverty don’t usually have their own washing machines. While we might be able to say that the sample sizes of the studies that have shown that most people don’t wash their reusable bags, we can assume that people who don’t have access to their own washing machine (and who sometimes don’t have the extra money to go to the Laundromat) are probably more likely to be in the group at risk of breeding bacteria in their reusable bags. Not because they are unsanitary people, but because they simply don’t have the money to care for them.

Purchasing reusable bags to replace grocery bags could also add to the monthly household costs for many of these households. People use plastic bags for their lunches, their children’s lunches, and as garbage bags. They use them to trade clothing between neighbors, to carry school books (and they use paper bags as book covers), and as ‘popcorn’ to protect fragile items when they move (which happens more often among people in poverty). They use them to clean up their pet’s business. Older people often do this kind of creative recycling regardless of their socioeconomic status. Ironically, the people who would be most hurt by a plastic bag ban are the people least likely to throw them away.

I recognize that plastic is bad for the environment and that a whole lot of plastic bags end up in the landfill. I recognize that we want to do everything we can to make the world a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place. But too little is really known about the benefits of reusable bags over plastic or paper (and preliminary evidence suggests that they might be taking us a step backward), the possible health consequences of relying on reusable bags, and the consequences of plastic bag bans to individuals and businesses to move forward with this policy—especially with the 5 cent fee-for-paper provision.

Being green doesn’t mean jumping at every new idea with the ‘sustainability’ tag behind it. It means being smart and making absolutely sure that we know what the impact of our policies will be—on the environment and on the people who live in it.

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