Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Paper or plastic . . . or neither?

Seattle is currently in the throes of deciding whether to implement a 20-cent bag fee for paper and plastic grocery bags at supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Opinions differ widely on this proposed fee: some people see it as a Big Brother tactic telling us how to live our lives; others see it as a regressive tax on the poor or the elderly; still others perceive it as a strong incentive to change wasteful behavior.

As the debate rages in our newspapers and mailboxes, let’s step back for a moment and look at the issue from a theological perspective. How does God call us to be good stewards of the planet? How do grocery bags fit into this calling?

In the second creation story, in Genesis 2:15, we are put in the garden “to till it and keep it.” Nowhere are we commanded to use it up and destroy it. Yet today we are sullying the garden at an alarming rate. According to a Seattle Public Utilities study, Seattlites use about 292 million plastic and 68 million paper bags per year. That’s 360 million bags for a population of about 600,000 people, or almost 12 bags per person per week. Those bags cost the retailer between 1 and 5 cents each for plastic, more for paper; those costs are passed along to us, the customers. Bags also cost about 17 cents each to dispose of or recycle. Who is paying for disposal? Again, we are. So between purchase and disposal we already pay about 20 cents per bag, but the cost has been invisible until now. Adding a bag fee makes the cost visible—and also gives us the choice to lower it by decreasing the number of paper and plastic bags we use.

Plastic bags break into small pieces but do not decompose entirely. They wash out to sea, where marine animals mistake them for food and can then starve to death if the plastic blocks their digestive tracts. Paper bags are not actually better: they are more carbon-intensive to manufacture and take 14 million trees per year. Paper production involves some toxic waste products that our environment would be better off without, such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and formaldehyde. A cloth bag that is used many times will more than compensate for the carbon footprint it took to produce.

What about the added expense this fee will create for the poor and elderly? Are we not called to take care of them, as we are told in Matthew 25:31-46? Danny Westneat reports in the Seattle Times (July 29, 2009) that desperately poor people could well be the ones who would end up paying the 20-cent fee for bags.

They might, for awhile—it takes times to change old habits. But I suspect that eventually many of them would figure out ways to bring their own bags. And some of the money generated from the bag fee will be directed to help such places as food banks with the bag problem; after all, they are not grocery stores, pharmacies, or convenience stores, which are the retailers targeted by this legislation. And if we interpret Matthew 25 as calling us to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned not just of the human race but of all creation, then we see that changing patterns of human behavior in this way benefits everyone.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which is based in Virginia and represents such big businesses as Exxon and Dow Chemical, among others, has poured well over $1 million into fighting the proposed bag fee legislation in Seattle. Clearly, ACC companies do very well financially by keeping us hooked on “free” plastic bags. Yet even a study commissioned by the ACC had to admit, “Cloth bags were shown to reduce environmental impacts if consumers can be convinced to switch.”

Whom do we serve: God of all creation, or the financial interests of the ACC? Whether this referendum passes or not, I, for one, resolve to be more intentional about taking cloth bags to the store.


Anonymous said...

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Karen Peissinger-Venhaus said...

Perhaps someone can start a tote bag sewing ministry to make bags for the desperately poor to use for shopping. Used billboard banner material, used burlap coffee sacks from Starbucks and Tully's, and used, poor condition clothing can be crafted into sturdy tote bags.

Are department stores (such as Target and Wal-Mart) included?