During my time at Buffalo Rising, I have written a number of articles that focus on sustainability initiatives to find ways that our community might come together to make our world a little more clean and green. Some of those articles have included environmental issues, like our “Save the Bees” article and event last year, or articles on group purchasing efforts of solar technology, a call to ban plastic straws (which is thankfully picking up momentum), and now the single-use plastic bag. The articles have mostly been met with support, however, the most frequent contrary or dismissive response we receive is that “other countries are way worse” when it comes to contributing to pollution. My question back is often, “How does that change our personal responsibility?” In my mind, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a stand-wide ban on plastic bags. Gov. Cuomo is not the first to call for this change. A ban has been proposed by many, including our own Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz, but the proposed legislation was blocked by the republican majority legislature. In January of 2018 a Statewide Task Force recommended that bags be banned state-wide. As reported on NY1, “Ten cities, towns and villages in New York state already have plastic bag bans in place, according to the governor’s office. The city of Long Beach and Suffolk County on Long Island have a fee in place for single-use plastic bags. New York City passed a bill in 2017 to impose a 5-cent fee on any paper or plastic grocery bag, but the governor and the state Senate blocked it from taking effect. Mayor Bill de Blasio had recently called for a statewide ban on plastic bags.”
We are not alone. This issue is being actively debated world-wide. Currently, all but one Australian state has some form of ban on plastic bags which lead Australia’s major supermarkets to take steps to ban plastic bags from their stores. Now, government officials are asking if they need to impose a country-wide legislative ban.
Australian News Outlet SBS News, recently published an article talking about the state of plastic, “Australia’s 2016-17 National Litter Index which found that plastic bags comprised just one per cent of Australia’s total litter count. The report found cigarettes, beverage containers and takeaway food packages made up 66 per cent of Australia’s overall litter problem. In 2016-17, people dumped 26,548 cigarette butts and packages in Australia, compared to 476 plastic bags. Takeaway food containers made up 10,828 of the total. The numbers were similar the year prior.”
The article also notes that “Countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh have banned the bag for environmental and health reasons. In Kenya, part of the reason was to combat the malaria problem as mosquitos were using bags as breeding grounds. In Bangladesh, dumped bags clogged drains and caused major flooding.”
Deakin University’s Dr. Trevor Thornton was quoted as saying, “everything I have read, no one has pinned (the problem) on plastic shopping bags … it’s on plastic.”
In 2012, Hawaii was the first U.S. state to issue a ban on some plastic bags. But the movement started years prior. I traveled to Maui in 2010, and at that point most shopping centers extremely discouraged the use of plastic bags. According to a Huffington Post article, the ban did not start with government, the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, said that the effort was “a great example of local activists and decision-makers addressing the serious issue of plastic pollution.” In fact, the original ban was not issued by the state legislature, but instead by the four County Councils.
Recently, regional supermarket, Wegmans, issued a statement in response to Gov. Cuomo’s proposed bill, in which they partially quote some findings from the State’s Plastic Bag Taskforce Report. They also added, “We know from experience that it’s possible to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags by educating customers about reusable bags and reminding them to bring plastic bags back to our store for recycling. This, coupled with the use of plastic bags made from recycled plastic will have a much greater impact in the long run. Wegmans uses a true closed-loop recycling program. Our plastic bags are made from 40 percent recycled plastic that is returned to our stores by our own customers, and our recycling rate for plastic bags averaged close to 50 percent in 2017.”
Wegmans is a beloved local brand, but they are clearly stating where they think the buck stops….with us. Looking at the initiatives in other countries and states, it all started with grassroots support that eventually lead to legislative action and changes in large corporations.
During a recent trip, I stood in the produce section of my local Wegmans, and tried to observe it objectively for a few minutes. It is fascinating, just how efficient a machine they have built. The management at Wegmans truly knows how to anticipate their customers needs and have mastered the art of the customer experience: helpful staff members are strategically placed throughout the store, aisles are clean, wide, and well organized, little yellow stickers alert shoppers to a sale, pre-packaged goods are easily in reach.
You can wander in with only a cart and your wallet, make a quick lap around the outside loop, or weave easily up and down the aisles. When checking out, all your precious items go from your cart, to the belt, to a bag, and back in your cart. Swipe a little plastic card, and you walk out. So easy, we don’t even have to think about it. And now, you can order online and pick up at store or have the items delivered to you!
But shouldn’t we stop to think about it? Single-use plastic has become overwhelmingly pervasive in our lives. It’s everything. Our whole culture has been built around momentary convenience. But at what cost and what will be the tipping point?
For decades, we have seen the devastation in our oceans and land fills. Just at the check out aisle alone, I stand there and imagine all the beautifully packaged commodities ripped from their branded shells, and littering the ground. How much of that will forever blow across the earth, I wonder?
For years, I justified the small steps I was taking to reduce plastic in my life: I’ll buy produce, but instead of taking a bag and twist tie, I’ll just put it in the cart. When I forget to bring in a reusable bag, I’ll just bring that bag back and recycle it, or better yet, use it to dispose of the kitty litter waste. Everything in life can just be tied up in a pretty little plastic bow and sent away to a place I don’t have to deal with it or consider the effect that I am having on our environment.
For example, did you know that there is NO fully recyclable form of dental floss? It does not exist. You know what else doesn’t exist? Evidence on the necessity of flossing. In 2016, the New York Times reported,
The latest dietary guidelines for Americans, issued by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, quietly dropped any mention of flossing without notice. This week, The Associated Press reported that officials had never researched the effectiveness of regular flossing, as required, before cajoling Americans to do it. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the American Academy of Periodontology acknowledged that most of the current evidence fell short because researchers had not been able to include enough participants or “examine gum health over a significant amount of time.”
Currently, most floss is made from nylon or Teflon. Glide branded floss is made of Polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE) and is the same material used in high-tech Gore-Tex fabric. This substance is also used in surgical implant material and is considered non-biodegradable. There are some brands that make silk floss packaged in glass bottles with metal tops, but silk comes with a high cost, both financial and to the lives of the silk worms that produce it.
All this, just so we can thread it through our teeth, which may or may not prevent disease, just to throw it away, where a portion inevitably makes it way back into the earth or water. At that point, the same qualities of durability, abrasion, and strength, can cut deep into the flesh of tangled creatures.
On that 2010 trip to Maui, I remember visiting both farmer’s markets and Walmart. Using reusable bags didn’t slow anyone down, it was just what people did. Which tells me that just as we are used to things being the way they are now, we can change. We can decide on a new normal. We can adjust our behavior, and still not be THAT inconvenienced.
Let’s start with the bag, even if it only represents a small percent, but let’s not let it end there. Let’s start looking at other items of convenience that we take for granted, and see if we can make some real lasting changes.
Article photos can be found on Pixabay.