City-by-City Review Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB)

City-by-City Review Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB)

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In the middle to latter part of the last century, BYOB meant bring your own bottle (of wine, beer or whatever) when attending a party.

Today it means bring your own bag, and marks a 180-degree shift in thinking among environmentally conscious Americans who have now lived through not only the hottest summer on record (2012) but the hottest month on record (July).

In the wake of that record heat, the United States also experienced one of the worst droughts on record – a wide swath of parched and dying farmer’s fields from the Upper Midwest to Texas, and from North and South Carolina to the artichoke and almond fields north of Los Angeles, California.

Challenging the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s, this most recent drought had a wider impact because America’s population is much larger than it was during the Dust Bowl, and most people live in big cities, far from the agricultural centers that produce food.

Keeping global warming below 2 degrees (Celsius) is no longer a goal, it’s a mandate, and one of the best ways to meet that goal is to stop living as a throw-away society, choking the oceans on our glut of plastic shopping bags. Because the oceans, with their currents, are the earth’s thermostat, and these currents are already beginning to change, perhaps as a component of global warming (or even as a result of pollution).

In the interests of that climate change mandate, cities across the nation have drafted BYOB laws and regulations. One of the most well-known is in San Francisco, which recently extended its plastic bag ban, effective October 1, 2012, to include all retail establishments, not just grocers. By implementing a program that requires retail outlets to furnish permissible bags (e.g., compostable, recycled or reusable bags) for a 10-cent fee – the money going back to the retailer to continue providing acceptable shopping bag substitutes as noted above – San Francisco, a city built alongside the Pacific Ocean, is cutting the source of the pollution.

In October of 2013, the mandate will reportedly be extended to restaurants which offer “doggie bags”. The fee remains the same, and applies to certified compostable plastic bags, 40-percent post-consumer recycled paper bags, and bags good for 125 or more trips to the store.

The ordinance does not cover bulk-item bags (for example, five pounds of nuts), bulk produce, grain, candy, meat, fish, the little bags in which a half-dozen screws or bolts are packaged for use, or bags used to separate items (milk and bread) to prevent damage. It also doesn’t cover prescription-drug bags, newspaper bags and laundry or dry cleaning bags, which are the thinnest mil in the plastic bag manufacturing lexicon. But expect these categories to be slowly introduced, weaning San Francisco residents off the plastic bag habit.

The City of San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in the BYOB rule (Chapter 17 of the Environment Code) On October 1, allowing retailers to charge at least 10 cents per bag – a charge consumers can avoid if they bring their own bag(s). In the wake of a consumer education campaign re the disadvantages of plastic bags, consumers are now aware that they can anonymously report retailers who fail to honor the rule.

The legislation supports a cleaner, greener San Francisco, prevents unnecessary (and unsightly) waste, and prevents harm to marine species, all of whom are affected by smaller fish eating the plastic that invariably floats alongside the plankton which forms the backbone of their (and other aquatic species’) diets.

California is the leader in this BYOB campaign, as it is in so many other green venues, with 45 other cities, townships and counties participating. One of them is Fremont, south of San Francisco on the mainland in the Mission Hills area.

But California is not alone. In New York State, the Hudson Valley/Westchester area has enlisted more than 30 retail outlets, and 300 residents, in a “Kick the Plastic Bag Habit” campaign that aims to win the bag war using gentle influence (and perhaps shame) rather than outright legislation.

In New York City, a recycling program builds on that theme. By encouraging people to change, offering them the tools for change, and then nudging them along until novelty becomes habit, New York City hopes to nix the obnoxious plastic bag, but in a fun way. Which is probably why New York City’s government landing page calls the effort a recycling “game”.

The same attitude prevails in South Lake Tahoe – a ski and lake resort high in the Sierra Nevada mountains straddling the border between California and Nevada – in Durango, Colorado, a former gold mining town, and Chicago, Illinois, which American poet Carl Sandburg once called “The Hog butcher to the world, city of Big Shoulders:”

Plastic bags are more than a nuisance, and worse than a blight. They are, according to the International Coastal Clean-up, second only to cigarette butts as the most common waste found on beaches worldwide.

That is a commentary on lifestyle that should sicken us all.

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