OpEd

Story published: 11-13-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Banning the plastic bag: One community or state at a time

By Frances Lamberts

They festoon tree limbs and litter beaches and the countryside, clog storm drains and waterways, are carried out to the ocean in vast numbers, and use up 17 million barrels of oil per year, in the United States alone.

They are the 60,000 disposable plastic bags in which U.S. shoppers, every five minutes, ferry home their purchased goods from stores.

A small number are returned for recycling at “participating” stores, but every year, Americans discard a hundred billion bags following their brief functional use in merchandise transport.

The oil from which the bags were made took 70 million years to form.

These and related aspects of waste problems in our throw-away economy were highlighted in a highly acclaimed film, “Bag It,” at the D.P. Culp Center at East Tennessee State University on Nov. 5.

The film’s title, overtly capturing the ubiquitousness of packaging in “our crazy-for-plastic-world” aimed primarily to convey the importance of a less common meaning of the phrase, described in some dictionaries as “to stop doing something.”

The Environmental Protection Agency states the trash we produce every year, much of it from “convenient” disposable bags and packaging, fills enough trucks to form a line all the way to the moon.

Yet, as the garbage now swirling in great patches in the oceans reminds us, there is no moon or other “away” for humanity to rid itself of the mounting plastic garbage, nor its persistent, harmful effects in the environment.

In myriads of oil-based products and materials, plastic has become a basic element in the lives of people everywhere.

Single-use disposable bags are not an essential need, however, and the consumption of millions of barrels of oil for them is hard to justify.

A worldwide movement of “bagging” or “stop using” this wasteful habit was the main, hopeful message of the film.

Scores of countries have taken action to curb disposable-bag use.

In Bangladesh and India, China and Australia, many African and European countries, shoppers must bring their own bags or pay a fee for store-provided ones.

The measures are highly effective. In Ireland, within weeks of a 22-cent charge being placed on store bags, the use of disposables fell by 90 percent.

In scores of U.S. municipalities as well, citizens have sought and gained laws or ordinances to spur the phase-out of the bags.

Often facing strong, industry-funded opposition, action in Illinois a few months ago, spearheaded by a 13-year-old student, shows the widening movement here.

After completing an environmental awareness project in her school in Grayslake, Abby Goldberg decided to seek a ban on plastic bags from her village board.

Finding that a bill was moving through the legislature to prevent Illinois towns from enacting such bans, she rallied 175,000 people in a petition drive urging its veto from the state’s governor.

She cared too much about our environment to “sit by quietly while big plastic tried to push this bill through [her] state,” Abby said. Illinois’ governor agreed with her, upholding communities’ right to “ban the bag.”