Our opinion: Ditch the plastic, hold the fee

A plastic bag holds plastic bottles on March 27, 2019, in New York. The Vermont Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill banning single-use, carryout plastic bags, such as grocery bags.

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The Vermont Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill banning single-use, carryout plastic bags (i.e., grocery bags), foam containers and plastic straws, with some exceptions. That's bound to be good news to the supporters of such a ban from environmental activists to elementary and high school students who have pushed for change, particularly in Manchester.

The momentum for banning these thin-film bags — which are difficult to recycle, negatively affect wildlife habitats and break down into microplastics that find their way into the food chain — is building nationally. The additional proposed bans of Styrofoam containers and plastic straws are wise, so long as there's sensitivity to the needs of disabled persons for drinking straws. And there's wisdom to enacting the ban in July 2020, rather than in July 2019 as a House version proposes, to give everyone time to comply.

Where S. 113 falls short is in its insistence upon a 10 cent fee for paper bags, which was added to the proposal in committee.

Lead sponsor Sen. Chris Bray, a New Haven Democrat representing Addison County, believes that the 10 cent fee (paid to and pocketed by the store) is necessary to get people to use reusable bags.

"In jurisdictions where those bags were provided at no cost, many people just switched to paper, and they changed the nature of the problem, but now they have more paper waste to deal with," Bray said during debate last week.

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Reusable bags are the best solution. They have two key engineering advantages over paper bags: They don't fail when they get wet, and they have handles. Given a choice of a paper bag that won't hold more than three tomato cans and a sturdy fiber bag with greater tensile strength and a longer shelf life, we think many consumers would pick the reusable bag.

A bipartisan group of six Senators, including Becca Balint, D-Windham, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, is offering an amendment to cut that fee from 10 cents to 5 cents. The full Senate is scheduled to consider that amendment when it takes up a third reading today in Montpelier.

As a compromise position, a nickel is better than a dime. But the addition of any fee at all to this bill highlights what seems to be a widespread belief in Montpelier that solutions to problems must always come with a regressive tax or fee of some sort.

Taxation is how we pay for our priorities — roads, schools, public safety, a social safety net, a cleaner environment. That's the social contract that we have chosen, and history shows that it works. But fees shouldn't be the solution to everything. Can't we come up with a solution that doesn't squeeze every last nickel and dime out of consumers who don't have reusable bags, or left them on the kitchen table?

The Senate ought to rethink the 10 cent fee for a paper bag, and at the least accept the 5 cent compromise put forth by Sens. Balint and Sears and their colleagues. A single-use, carryout plastic bag ban deserves support, but the paper bag alternative ought not carry a needless additional cost to consumers, especially for those on tight budgets.