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WASHINGTON -- Across the country, cities and counties are instituting fees on plastic bags, or even banning them outright, in an effort to prevent pollution and raise revenue for cash-strapped local governments.
Four cities in Oregon -- Eugene, Corvallis, Newport and Ashland -- are considering banning plastic bags at retail stores. The towns would join at least 10 other U.S. cities and counties that have prohibited plastic bags since 2008.
"There is no reason a product we use for a few minutes should float in our oceans for a few hundred years," said Dave Mathews, a preservation associate for Environment Oregon.
Not all voters embrace the idea. In 2009, Seattle residents voted down a proposed plastic bag fee and Philadelphia voters rejected a ban. But since 2009, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports, 12 states have proposed bans on plastic bags while three have proposed taxes.
Environmental activists emphasize the conservation benefits of discouraging the use of plastic bags.
"Plastics, especially once they get into the marine environment, are pervasive. They have dramatic effects on marine life," said Julie Lawson, chair of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a group that seeks to preserve coastal areas.
"A lot of Surfrider volunteers get started by attending a beach or river cleanup," she continued. What they learn is that "we could be cleaning up for the rest of our lives, and it will still show up. Addressing it at the source through a bag ban or a fee is really the most sustainable way of addressing this trash problem."
The trend toward plastic bag bans is not limited to the United States. China enacted a plastic bag ban in 2008, and since then the country has saved more than 1.6 million barrels of oil and reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent.
Opponents of such bans say that replacing disposable bags with reusable ones may seem like a laudable goal, but the reality can be quite different.
Shari Jackson, director of Progressive Bag Affiliates, an organization that actively lobbied against a plastic bag ban enacted in several California cities, told HuffPost that the ban itself is just not effective.
"Bans have not been shown to reduce litter, which is always the stated intent," said Jackson. "Instead, experience has shown that when grocers and retailers are no longer permitted to use plastic bags, consumers turn to paper bags, which create more greenhouse gas emissions and use more energy to manufacture."
Jackson noted that bans can have unintended effects on employment opportunities as well. "Bans erode consumer choice, threaten well-paying manufacturing jobs and harm growing recycling programs for plastic bags and wraps," she said.
Plastic bag bans also impose a new burden on consumers. Edmundo Arizpe of Brownsville, Texas, said that when he needs to buy a lot of groceries he goes to a nearby city that allows plastic bags. "I'm doing worse to the climate [by driving]," Arizpe told The New York Times in May.
The environment is not the only concern driving cities and counties to plastic bag bans. The other is tax dollars. With state tax revenues at an all-time low, a levy such as the 5 cent fee per bag that the District of Columbia implemented in 2010 can help replenish the coffers.
During the first year the bag fee went into effect, D.C. collected an additional $2 million in tax revenue.