It seems every day I walk over to the local market for dinner items or some obscure ingredient for a recipe I’m making. I look at this daily trek as forced exercise. I’ve resigned myself to my apparent inability to organize a proper shopping list and therefore make only one trip to the store, once a week.
I did manage to skip January 1st. Making my daily run January 2nd, I nearly knocked a fellow down who was on his way out of the market. I was distracted by the five pounds of hamburger he gripped in his hands with a receipt stuck on top. Something was wrong with this picture. Then it hit me, the new bag tax! Montgomery County, Maryland is following in the footsteps of counties and cities around the country, and the world, encouraging reduction of plastic bags by charging five cents per bag. Any bag, even paper. Any store, not just grocery stores. The hamburger guy opted out of the bag and the nickel surcharge. Good for him, one bag less but as many as a trillion plastic bags to go. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and less than 1% are recycled.
In the check out line there was much grumbling about paying for a sack to convey groceries home and there were more than a few covetous looks at my motley assortment of cloth bags. A young man in front of me commented, “What’s the big deal, it’s just five cents?” I felt compelled to explain about the islands of plastic in the Pacific, one trash vortex is the size of Texas. That got his attention! He was checking out so I didn’t get to explain why all this matters environmentally. Here are the highlights.
This is a huge problem, especially in the oceans, as evidenced by the size and growing number of plastic islands. But first, the bags have to reach the ocean. On their journey, discarded plastic bags litter roadways, catch in tree branches and foliage, choke storm drains, and wash into streams, rivers, lakes and bays.
Wildlife, especially aquatic life, is severely impacted when bags sink to the bottom of streams, lakes and the ocean, blanketing food sources and smothering organisms living there. And then there is the matter of plastic bags being ingested by marine animals. Floating bags mimic jellyfish and end up as lunch for birds and ocean dwellers. Research from the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation estimates that more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year due to eating or becoming entangled in plastic. The bags cannot be digested and these critters will eventually die. Plastic does not biodegrade but, over time, simply breaks into smaller pieces to be ingested by fish that can end up on our dinner plates.
Devastating impacts on wildlife and consequences for our food sources are only part of the plastic bag dilemma. Plastic bags are manufactured from polyethelene, a thermoplastic made from petroleum. Billions and billions of gallons of oil are wasted every year to create this scourge on the environment, not to mention continuing our foreign oil dependency. China banned free plastic bags in 2008 and the savings in natural resources are estimated to be 1.6 million tons of petroleum, over a two-year period.
Cities in the US are grappling with the problem. Some are opting for recycling, however, it is questionable that this really makes sense. If the bags end up at a recycling center, and on average, only 2% of plastic bags in the US are recycled, it costs $4,000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which are valued at around $32 on the commodities market.
Some cities, San Francisco being the first, have opted for a total ban. In terms of my home turf, I am happy the process has begun to move toward a more sustainable solution for this burgeoning environmental problem. I have one observation. I think many environmental initiatives, such as this, stall in acceptance due to lack of education.
Montgomery County passed this law in May 2011 to be enacted January 1st 2012. I started to see very small signs posted at stores shortly before the end of the year. No big splash, no explanation, just a new tax that many resent and don’t understand. If the county articulated the problem and engaged the community in being part of the solution, I think people would rally to the issue.
I think the county should have used their secret weapon, kids! A simple program could have been instituted in the county schools to teach students about the environmental impact plastic bags pose. Children are fantastic conduits of information to their parents and grandparents. The county could have distributed reusable bags by sending a bag home with each student. That would have alerted the grocery buyer in the family. Perhaps parents could be tasked helping on related homework assignments and called upon to get involved with their child on a volunteer project to clean up the local creek. These are just a few simple ways to help inform the community. My point, everything works better when people understand the issues and the proposed solutions.
Today, 22 days after the bag law was enacted, I joined many, reusable bag toting, shoppers as I searched for the ingredient du jour.
© 2012, Catherine B. Zimmerman. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us