Recent bag ban in Portland sets an example for PSU to follow
The City of Portland has officially banned plastic bags at grocery store checkout stands as of Oct. 15. This has students asking: Should Portland State follow suit? How should we answer when asked, “paper or plastic?”
Plastic bags can be very green, according to Ken Brown, CEO of the Portland State Bookstore. The bookstore’s bags “can be used many times,” Brown said, and are “greener than paper bags in environmental criteria.”
Brown said that the store’s bag supplier is very green, both in terms of manufacturing costs and resulting pollution. The supplier in question, Roplast Industries, has multiple green practices, according to Brown: capturing wastewater and reusing it, using soy inks and capturing heat for an overall energy usage of zero.
“Don’t judge a book by its plastic cover,” Brown said.
At the disposal end, though, plastic bags are difficult to recycle and often cause a lot of environmental problems. Less than 5 percent of all single-use checkout plastic bags are reported to be recycled.
Locally, plastic bags contaminate recycled and composted material, jam recycling machinery to the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 every month and cause injuries to recycling workers.
Globally, it gets worse. Plastic pollution kills wildlife when it is mistaken for food or an animal becomes entangled. Depending on the type of plastic, it may float or sink if it makes it into the water, forming massive floating islands that coalesce or fragment. Although they may seem to get smaller or vanish, however, they never disappear.
“Plastics break down into tiny beads that fish eat,” said Jenny DuVander, communications director for Portland State’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. DuVander pointed out that many coastal cities have banned plastic bags. Cities and countries all over the world have enacted plastic bag bans, from San Francisco to South Africa, from Oakland to Maui to Mumbai.
When it comes to choosing between paper and plastic, though, “the best answer is neither,” said Jennifer McNamara, the sustainability coordinator in Portland State’s Office of Planning, Sustainability and Real Estate. McNamara said the best alternative is a third one—reusable bags, such as cloth bags.
Reusable bags greatly reduce resources consumed, help reduce pollution and are more sustainable than recycling. “A ban on plastic bags is definitely a valid approach to resource conservation and pollution prevention,” McNamara said. “However…the true responsibility falls on each of us as consumers to use reusable bags and avoid disposables at the point of purchase.”
Reusable cloth bags are becoming popular at the local grocer New Seasons. Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons CEO, testified at the City Council’s hearing that approved the plastic bags ban that her company issued nearly three million five-cent “bag credits” last year to shoppers bringing in reusable bags.
For PSU students, a plastic bag ban and adoption of reusable bags may be a no-brainer. All seven PSU students interviewed said they would approve of a ban on plastic bags at Portland State and are willing to use or already are using reusable bags.
Architecture senior Michael Coon and economics major Toby Sytsma pointed out that reusable bags are light and foldable, fitting neatly in a school backpack for ready use.
Liberal studies junior Sydney Morrison sometimes forgets to carry a cloth bag, but she is already employing them. She sees the advantages. “Last night I was in the Safeway, and going home, my paper bag dissolved on me.”
Brown points out that such “dissolving” is why paper bags might not work for bookstores, especially in a rainy climate. “Our product is heavy. Last time I had to look at it, plastic bags were a better and greener option.”
DuVander, of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, points out that a plastic bag ban could be part of the formula in PSU’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to achieve net-zero carbon use by 2040. PSU is one of more than 685 colleges and universities to adopt the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. This means PSU is now employing strategies for energy use, materials consumption, travel and transportation.
A plastic bag ban at PSU is a great idea, especially if coupled with a strategy to educate and encourage the use of reusable cloth bags. DuVander makes the comparison to the “Take Back the Tap” campaign encouraging the use of water bottles on campus to reduce or eliminate the consumption of plastic water bottles.
The university presently has no plans to ban the use of plastic bags on campus. However, McNamara said that her office plans to organize a discussion around the possibility of a bag ban.