Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Grocery Bags, Power Plants and Waste
distributed 10/11/13 - ©2013

A trip through the grocery store check-out reminded me why the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules on carbon emissions from huge power plants is necessary. That strange pairing makes some sense if you add in Denver's consideration of a fee on single-use shopping bags.

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The details of my eye-opening situation are not that important. It is enough to say that I was leaving the grocery store with a cart full of stuff and only a few canvas bags. I was going to have to let some of it be put into plastic bags. (My "no bag, please" option wasn't going to work this time.)

Using plastic bags is an unusual enough occurrence that I was astonished by what happened. After the clerk rang up my purchases, they moved down the second conveyor belt to the two young men hired to pack it up for me. (Two of them? Perhaps one was a trainee.) They quickly filled my colorful cloth bags and put them in the cart. And still more food rolled their way.

One of the guys took my half-gallon carton of milk, put it into a plastic bag, all by itself, and placed that into the cart. Two oranges, three apples and a tomato -- into a bag, and into the cart. The next bag was being opened up for a bell pepper that was coming down the belt.

I wasn't in the mood to do an experiment and see how many flimsy plastic bags they could use up, so I intervened. "I think we can put more into a bag than that," I announced. The two youth looked both stunned and confused, so I started cramming things into bags until they were well-filled.

On a normal shopping trip, our big canvas bags are packed carefully. Whoever is filling them up knows that there are a limited number of bags, and that some care needs to be given to how they are loaded. Pack them full, but that tomato does not belong at the bottom, under the carton of milk!

On my recent shopping trip, though, with the infinite number of plastic bags available, free to me, and of essentially trivial cost to the store, the baggers didn't think about either the number of bags or how to pack them. The lack of a price for that very temporary packaging removed any incentive for thoughtful decisions.

As I mentioned, my home town of Denver is debating a 5 cent fee on single-use bags in grocery and convenience stores. The goal is to reduce the litter when those light-weight bags blow around or wash into storm sewers, and to minimize the tangle they create in recycling machinery. Opponents of the fee point out the economic burden that it would impose on low-income families. With 130 million of those bags used in Denver every year (wow!), both the volume of waste and the amount of fees are appreciable.

The political argument about that fee has focused on the choices made by shoppers. How can poor folk be provided with reusable bags so that they can make responsible decisions? My recent experience at the store, though, opened my eyes to a different dynamic. How do we shape the behavior of the clerks and baggers?

If shoppers were paying a nickel for each bag, a lot more people would be saying my unexpected words of "I think we can put more into a bag than that." Imposing a new fee might not get more people using cloth bags, but it would have a rapid impact on how many plastic bags are used. (That would be true at the do-it-yourself checkout lines, too.)

When the bags are free, almost everybody involved is likely to make irresponsible decisions about how many bags to use. Charging even a trivial fee makes folk pay attention and brings real changes in behavior.

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Without getting too caught up in the details, let's be creative with the image. Instead of a conveyor belt at the supermarket, think of a smokestack at a utility-scale power plant. And instead of plastic bags, think about the gasses coming out of the tall chimney and into the atmosphere.

It is astonishing, but dumping the waste products of electrical generation into the air is free. The utility burns coal or natural gas, and the carbon dioxide that results is vented with no restrictions and no fees. (There are rules about other stuff coming out of the smokestack. Pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide are regulated under the Clean Air Act, but CO2 is not.)

And just like the baggers at the grocery store don't care how many of the essentially-free bags they use, the utilities have no incentive to emit less carbon dioxide when nobody is counting or charging. The volume of that pollution is staggering. The EPA says, "The electric power sector accounted for 33% of U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions and 60% of U.S. stationary source greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. Fossil fuel-fired power plants are the largest source of U.S. CO2 emissions." And that is important, of course, because CO2 is one of the primary culprits in our planet's crisis of global warming.

The long-term goal is the electric utility equivalent of using cloth shopping bags -- renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are the most responsible, lowest polluting option. But that's not a completely viable alternative right now, so we need -- in my painfully stretched imagery -- to make the best use of a more polluting option. Getting as much electricity as possible out of fossil fuels is like completely filling the smallest number of plastic bags.

And just like grocery stores or shoppers need an incentive to count bags, the utilities need an incentive to count CO2. So the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules that require -- for any new power plants that will be constructed -- a certain level of electrical generation per unit of carbon dioxide released. There are lots of complicated details (of course!), but the general figure being proposed allows no more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity being generated.

With current technologies, that essentially means that power plants burning coal won't be able to meet the new standards, but natural gas fired generators are OK. When we establish standards for reasonable levels of greenhouse gasses, then the design of new power plants will change. Don't expect to see any new coal-fired power plants being built in the United States. (Which really isn't a shock. Gas is now a cheaper fuel than coal, and the cost of other pollution controls already made coal a bad choice.)

Fifteen months ago, I wrote about an earlier version of the proposed EPA rules on new power plants, which had essentially the same standards. "I came away with the feeling that these proposed rules are so blindingly obvious, so reasonable, so non-controversial, that I don't need to say anything." But recognizing the political pressures that will be raised against the rules, I did submit comments in support of the proposal.

Once again, the EPA is seeking comments on the proposed rules. They are still blindingly obvious, and they are absolutely essential, and once again I will be writing a formal statement in support. I encourage you to do so, too. (Your comments can be submitted by email, even while the government is shut down -- reference Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495. The "" website isn't set up for the new proposal yet.) Your statement doesn't have to be long or filled with expert details. You can just affirm that the new standards are reasonable and important.

Whether it is plastic bags at the grocery store or carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, the quantity of waste in important. Sensible fees or standards will make a real difference in how much waste and pollution is generated.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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