Guest Column: No bag and bottle cops, thank you

By Don C. Brunell

There is an old saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It is a good lesson to remember.

To some, the only way to get people to do the right thing is to forbid them from doing otherwise. In this case, a handful of lawmakers in Olympia want to ban plastic bags and bottles. Of course, our taxes will pay for “bag and bottle cops” to enforce it, but that is another story.

A case in point: Remember how well that worked in the 1920s when booze was outlawed? Prohibition became one of the biggest flops in our nation’s history. Even my petite English grandmother skirted the law and became a bootlegger brewing beer for my grandfather and his partners working in Butte’s underground copper mines.

Rep. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline) introduced legislation to stop grocery stores from using plastic bags. Under her bill, grocers must provide sacks that are made from paper, cotton, canvas or non-petroleum reusable plastic or face stiff fines.

In addition, Chase wants to forbid anyone from selling water in plastic bottles less than one liter. Her bill also stops the state from buying those small water bottles that show up prominently in every meeting room and office from the State Capitol to Eastern Washington University.

As an aside, have they forgotten what it was like before plastic bottles with all the broken glass strewn about the pavement, sidewalks and street gutters?

Since the “bottle ban” would apply only to Washington, people could easily drive to Portland or Moscow to buy small bottles of water. They could even put them in a plastic bag and dash back across the border. It doesn’t make sense.

There is a better way, one based on incentives.

First, remember Washington was the first state to adopt a litter control law back in 1971. Bottle, can and packaging producers pay a tax which in turn funds those roadside clean-up crews. Lawmakers ought to work with that law to further reduce trash by providing additional incentives to reuse and recycle containers and packaging. Oregon did.

Last year, its Legislature expanded the bottle and cans deposit to include non-carbonated beverages — especially water bottles. Consumers pay 2 cents for refillable bottles and a nickel for non-refillable containers. People who return their empties get money back.

Second, encourage people to reuse bags and containers. Many merchants want you to bring your sacks back because it reduces waste and saves them money. Fred Meyer and most grocers sell reusable totes and give discounts to shoppers who use them. Some even replace lost or ripped carriers. IKEA gives customers a choice; bring your own bag or pay a nickel at the checkout stand for a new one. The bag sale proceeds go to American Forests, the nation’s oldest citizens’ conservation group. IKEA expects to raise $7 million for the charity.

Third, it is in our collective national interest to reduce our use of petroleum-based products, but we simply can’t eliminate them. We depend on plastics for millions of essentials we use daily. Just think of a hospital without sterile plastic tubing or syringes. While no legislator in Olympia is suggesting a petroleum-product ban, before there is hasty action to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we ought to think about what we would do without them.

The bottom line is we need to reduce greenhouse gases and our dependence on foreign oil suppliers. Recycling and reusing products is a key part of that strategy. And it saves money.

For example, in 2006, Safeway stores in California diverted more than 85 percent of their total solid waste from landfill disposal, resulting in 207,190 tons of recycled materials. Safeway also saved $24,589,320 in disposal costs and has become a consistent winner in California’s Waste Reduction Awards Program (WRAP).

Safeway also purchased enough wind energy to become the fourth largest retail use of renewable energy in the nation. Based on EPA estimates, Safeway’s renewable purchases cut carbon dioxide emissions by 121 million pounds, which is a marketing plus for the company.

Businesses are eliminating waste because their customers are more environmentally aware. That is a positive step forward, and it saves money — money they can invest in new stores, factories and workers.

It is the American way to solve a problem by allowing people to make good choices — and put an extra buck in their pockets. The simple fact is market-based incentives are better than prohibition and punishment.

Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.