The lowly plastic grocery bag has emerged as the next symbolic battleground as cities and states around the country rush to prove their environmental credentials.
The city of Portland, most recently, has debated - and backed away from - a proposal by Mayor Sam Adams to ban plastic bags and impose a 5-cent fee on paper sacks used within the city.Portland's discussion of this issue follows an attempt in Seattle to establish a fee for grocery bags - a law that ultimately was overturned by voters.
Although Portland is putting the issue aside for now, there's no doubt that the pressure to ban so-called 'single-use' bags will increase. Adams is delaying action in Portland only because several state legislators say they will pursue a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags during the 2011 legislative session.
We agree with legislators that any regulation of grocery bags ought to occur at the state level. It would be very confusing for grocery stores and customers if, for example, Portland, Gresham, Lake Oswego, Beaverton, Oregon City and Hillsboro each imposed their own rules about grocery sacks.
But beyond the question of statewide uniformity, there's another reason to have legislators look at the issue: Any law that comes through the Legislature is more likely to be fully explored and to be approved with a more complete understanding of the potential consequences.
Plastic bags are not inherently evil -and paper bags may only be marginally better in terms of their environmental impact. Also, even if stores are prohibited from offering plastic bags at the checkout stand, other types of plastic bags will continue to be used throughout those stores - at the produce and meat counters and elsewhere.
We must confess a preference for paper, in part because paper bags are a better reflection of Oregon's forestry and pulp mill heritage. Also, paper is more easily recycled at curbside. But it's also true that the best alternative, from a purely environmental perspective, is to use cloth bags that can be carried to the store over and over again.
The justifications for banning petroleum-based plastic bags - ranging from concerns about the bags' potential impact on wildlife to litter to global warming - are serious issues. As well, we understand that any ban on plastic bags is hotly disputed by folks who say they are entitled to freely choose between paper, plastic or another bag, such as cloth, without being told what to do by a local or state law.
For all of these reasons, we think the Oregon Legislature is the best place to hear diverse points of view and then - if deemed necessary - impose a law that applies to all of Oregon, not just individual jurisdictions.