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Could proposed Colorado law to ban plastic bags actually end up hurting the environment?

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So a bunch of Denver prep school students are asking state legislators to pass a bill banning plastic bags in Colorado. Good for them! Plastic bags are insidious, earth-hating little contraptions that waste valuable petroleum and choke innocent sea turtles (or, in Colorado, what -- prairie dogs?).

Too bad plastic bag bans like this don't do much to help the environment.

Introduced to the Senate last week by Denver Democrat Jennifer Veiga, the proposed law would apply only to large grocery and retail stores that gross more than $1 million annually. Initially, consumers would be required to pay 6 cents per plastic bag they use for three years, after which the buggers would be prohibited entirely.

Students cite a similar ban on plastic bags that San Francisco enacted last year that has earned praise from environmental groups and clean-city advocates alike. But an article published earlier this month by the SF Weekly (a Westword sister paper) found that the limited scope of the law has done little to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up littering city streets or bloating local landfills. In fact, the ban has forced a proportional increase in the number of paper bags used. Since paper bags take up much more space than plastic bags, it has caused greater volume in landfills.

The author of the article, Joe Eskenazi, points out that studies show that paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags:

Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).

If policymakers are truly interested in helping the environment, they should look into a law used in some European countries that encourages shoppers to bring their own totes by placing a surcharge on both paper and plastic bags for all businesses, big or small. Of course, then proponents wouldn't just be battling the plastics and grocery lobby; they'd have consumers and small-business owners snarling as well.

Even Veiga's bill taxing plastic bags (with proceeds earmarked for improving "environmental awareness") is not likely to go far in the midst of a recession, during which even the biggest bleeding hearts find themselves voting with the Wal-Mart demographic. Looks like the choking prairie dogs may have to wait a little while longer.

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