Could Ashland do what Seattle can't?

"Seattle voters rejected a 20-cent fee for every paper or plastic bag they get from supermarkets, drug stores and convenience stores ... Plastic bag makers lobbied hard to defeat the fee, outspending opponents 15 to 1."

— Wire service story after Tuesday's election

If you read those two sentences to someone who knows nothing at all about American politics, someone with the distance, say, of a Martian anthropologist trying to figure out how we do things on planet Earth, what would the reaction be? "Why, you really do have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people'?" I don't think so.

Would Seattle voters have been ready to clamp down on disposable bags if they hadn't been bombarded by ads (alarmist and wildly inaccurate, by most accounts) from the corporations that make, transport and sell those bags? Yes, say bag fee proponents, with a lot of conviction but not much hard data.

The point of this column is not to observe yet again that our electoral decisions are often for sale to the highest bidder. Nor is it to stir readers up to join the national push for public campaign financing (if it were I'd probably ask you to visit The point is to ask you whether Oregon, the Rogue Valley and especially Ashland, where the general idea has bobbed up more than once, is ready for this kind of change.

Short of government mandate, some food stores are heading that way already. Several are promoting sturdy reusable bags, and if you shop the Food Co-op you know that a fresh paper bag at checkout will cost you a dime. (Since that's been true, I haven't once failed to bring my own bags to the Co-op; I enjoy a little reward for mustering a tiny bit of proactive consciousness. Plus I'm cheap.) Some would say that this voluntary private-sector path leads much more effectively to change than government regulation can. A reader's comment on the Seattle newspaper's Web site surely speaks for some Ashlanders: "Here's an idea: freedom to choose. If you want plastic bags, use them. if you don't, don't. But leave me alone."

Which takes us to the nub. This invitation to you and me to butt out assumes that this commenter's disposable bag habit costs us nothing at all. I don't buy that. The number of paper bags and the much larger number of plastic bags we consume (500 billion per year globally, or nearly 1 million per minute, says expands our carbon footprint (oil and timber extraction, CO2 emissions from a cluster of transportation and manufacturing processes, contracting landfill space) more than anyone can accurately calculate. If within his grocery bill our Seattle friend were paying the full price of bags he's using and throwing away — the military costs for maintaining global access to oil, the public health costs of carbon-based air pollution, a toll for the addition of greenhouse gases — we could easily leave him alone. But he's not (none of us are), so we don't.

And if you accept the premise that we have to change the way we use resources, here's the thing: This one's easy. Many of the ways to lighten our step on the planet call for inconveniences, some of them serious enough to border on hardship. But in this case we're talking about containers for carrying your eggs and Cheerios and toothpaste from the supermarket checkstand to your home. If Seattle or Ashland or anyplace else wants to craft a financial incentive nudging more of us to do that with durable multi-use bags instead of a share of that mountain of a half-trillion single-use oil-based bags, are we really dealing with some kind of freedom-crushing tyranny here?

I remember a public radio host around these parts who ended every show with the sign-off "Do what you can do." Do you suppose we can do this one?


Let me invite you to a good forum discussion. Check out what a small crowd of readers had to say about health care reform by going to the "Opinion" and then the "columnist" tab off Click on last week's column, "A little less shouting, a little more thinking." Lots of thoughtful disagreement and only a small dab of name-calling (and it came, I have to say, from readers who tend to agree with me; the strongest critic of these columns stuck to the issue instead of tossing stink-bombs). Good reading. Thanks.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at

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