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New Ideas for a New Year 

Pittsburgh is gearing up for new leadership with new ideas. We offer some of our own suggestions to get the new year off on the right foot.

Ask Logan Welde about the state's top environmental problems, and you won't hear him talk about single-use bags.

But ask him to name a problem that can be solved with a relatively minor change in incentives, and paper and plastic inch closer to the top of the list.

"It's something that's such a big part of our lives," says Welde, a staff attorney at the Clean Air Council. "[Consumers] have literally always accepted that it's a free thing — people don't even consider that it's [bad] for the environment."

Welde has been pushing legislation in Philadelphia that would reduce single-use bags by levying a fee on them. If Pittsburgh followed suit, he says, it would significantly reduce urban litter, raise home values in poorer neighborhoods and grease the wheels for action at the state level.

And even though he works for an environmental organization, "I hardly mention the environmental costs because people tend to look at you as a tree-hugger and write you off," he says.

Yes, there's a mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas. And yes, marine creatures often confuse the plastic for food, ingesting small pieces that kill them or make their way into the food supply. The bags' fossil-fuel-intensive production and delivery pollutes the air ... and every single plastic bag that has ever been manufactured — trillions overall — will last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before degrading.

Still, Welde acknowledges, "Paper or plastic?" just doesn't produce much hand-wringing at the checkout counter.

So Welde stresses arguments that he thinks should persuade libertarian critics, some of whom argue the government shouldn't meddle with another "sin tax."

Put simply: Cities are spending millions of dollars on cleaning up litter, Welde says, a cost that taxpayers can't opt out of.

Based on census data and conservative estimates of bag use per person, Welde estimates that Pittsburghers use more than 100 million bags each year. That amounts to about $3 million in avoidable litter collection costs in Pittsburgh — and nearly $15 million in Philadelphia, he says.

And the free market doesn't appear to be accounting for those costs.

At Giant Eagle, for instance, customers who bring reusable bags face no economic incentive to do so — the costs are simply built in to the business model, and the local grocery chain doesn't appear to be considering a change in its policy. "A decision has been made: We're going to offer customers a choice" between paper and plastic, spokesman Dick Roberts says, noting the company offers reusable bags and has a plastic-bag recycling program.

State Sen. Daylin Leach introduced a bill earlier this year that would nudge consumers toward reusable bags at larger retailers like Giant Eagle by instituting a 2-cent-per-bag fee on plastic bags. The revenue would be earmarked for sustainability efforts at the state level and in the retail stores themselves.

"The entire planet cannot revolve around our momentary convenience," Leach says. "If a bag was given out at the Battle of Hastings, it would still be around."

But unlike the Norman conquest of England, the bill seems unlikely to take the Republican-controlled legislature by storm. The bill hasn't been brought up for a vote in committee, while critics say Leach's bill doesn't go far enough: A 2-cent fee wouldn't dramatically change consumer behavior, the complaint goes, especially since his measure doesn't impose a cost for paper bags.

"Given the political climate, I thought we'd be modest," Leach says.

Given partisan gridlock at the state and federal levels, cities like Pittsburgh can be laboratories to experiment with public policy. "Pushing on the state level will take time," says Erika Staaf, of PennEnvironment. "And what better way to build momentum by passing it city by city, municipality by municipality?"

A fee in Pittsburgh would hardly be the first: Washington, D.C.'s bag fee took effect in 2010. But a local fee could help finance other environmental initiatives Bill Peduto hopes to accomplish when he takes the city's highest office. By Welde's accounting, a 5-cent fee would generate around $500,000 for the city each year; a 25-cent fee could net between $1.3 and $2.1 million. That's a lot of LED streetlights.

Perhaps more importantly to people like Welde, a successful bag fee can open doors down the road by demonstrating that simple behavioral changes lead to tangible improvements to their cities. Even if no one is asking you to give up your car, maybe you'll be convinced to ditch regular use of bottled water or largely unread phone books. "It's kind of an educational step," he says.

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