Plastic Bag Ban Thoughts

The girls and I went to our local city council meeting last night to speak about the proposed bag ban ordinance. They limited us to 2 minutes of speaking time, and between the time it took to introduce ourselves and my shaking voice, I didn’t make it to the end of what I had written. Here it is, in the hope that our city council members will read it when I send this link to them.

fragment of plastic phone book delivery bag found beside Lynwood Center Road, July 21, 2011

My name is Rebecca Rockefeller, and I have a plastic problem. No matter how hard I try, and I’ve been trying hard for over two years now, I just can’t avoid the stuff. That might not seem like such a big deal, so I’ll tell you why it really is. The reason I’ve been trying so hard to live a life less plastic is because two years ago, I finally saw all of the plastic on our local beaches. Not the plastic we’ve heard about that’s floating in the gyres in our oceans, not the plastic choking albatross chicks on Midway every year, all of those plastic bits and pieces that are so far away, it’s easy for us to think this isn’t our issue – No, the plastics that changed my life are the bits and pieces right here, on our own island’s shores. They’re right in front of us, but the blackberry vines and beach roses and grasses we’re blessed to share the shore with hide them from us, the water-slicked rocks that tumble in our waves hide them, the tangle of seaweed along the high tide line hides them. Scientists around the world have reached a general consensus that 80% of the plastic pollution in our oceans comes from land, and my daughters and I have seen that borne out in our citizen scientist work to collect and catalog the local plastic detritus.

plastic rope, now-empty bag of dog poop, torn grocery bag found beside intersection of Baker Hill and Lynwood Center, July 21, 2011

Yes, we have a lot of plastic pollution right here, and it is our own local waste. The pens we drop, the balloons whose ribbon tails escape our grasp, the caps of our single-use water and soda bottles, the straws from our drinks, the spoons from our ice cream, the rocket tops of our fireworks, the wrappers of our individually packaged snacks, and yes, our plastic bags – It’s all there, with a whole lot more, on our beaches, and it gets there from our pockets, our purses and backpacks, our garbage cans and recycling bins. It’s all wind-blown and rain-carried from our parking lots and roadsides to our ditches, our streams, our unfiltered storm drains, and out to the waters of Puget Sound.

plastic bag of dog poop in the Schel-Chelb estuary stream, January 8, 2011

Once it’s in the water, it picks up persistent organic pollutants, chemicals that are longing in their every molecule to bond with something that will get them away from all that water. Plastic doesn’t ever biodegrade, but it does photodegrade into smaller and smaller pieces, keeping its original chemical profile and any attached toxicity intact as it shrinks. And all along the way, it mimics food for marine life. Every organism connected to our marine food webs will eventually get a serving of plastic pollution; already, studies are finding evidence of this process in the bodies and fat cells of Puget Sound’s filter feeders, fish, and seals. And even if you never eat seafood, you probably enjoy vegetables and fruits grown in soil enriched with fish fertilizer – There’s really no escaping the fact that we’re tied to the marine food web.

Every speck of white in this photo is plastic or polystyrene, just above the wrack zone at Pleasant Beach/Schel-Chelb estuary, January 8, 2011.

Whatever your political ideology, whatever party you favor, whatever you think of land use and property rights and government regulation, whatever your own name, you have this same plastic problem. And it is time for us to step up to our responsibility and take action. Basic common sense demands action, right now, on the things we can address here at home, on our beloved island. The thin-film bag ban is just this – This is a very ripe piece of low hanging fruit, ready to be picked from our plastic pollution tree.

Plastic collected in one hour by three little girls, Schel-Chelb estuary/Pleasant Beach, January 8, 2011

I ask each of you to vote yes on this ban, for your own sake, for mine, for my children’s, and on behalf of every other creature living in, on, and around the Salish Sea. This doesn’t require great sacrifice on anyone’s part – There are viable, affordable alternatives to thin-film plastic bags. This is not the sort of environmentally minded action that requires any of us to suffer; this ban creates no martyrs. It is a simple no-nonsense first step to start our collective action on our plastic pollution problem. It honors the wise use of personal resources our ancestors modeled for us, and it moves us closer to the future we owe our descendants.

Jar of pretty poison - Plastic pollution recovered from Bainbridge Island and Point No Point beaches, fall of 2011.

8 comments on “Plastic Bag Ban Thoughts

  1. A fabulous write. Thank you for the elegant way you have articulated the need and seriousness of the problem in a gentle voice that can evoke change.

  2. Well said. I hope everyone reads it!!! The pictures are sadly beautiful…

  3. Thank you for attending the meeting and speaking out.

  4. I enjoy your posts. Interested in CORA. Spoke with Scott last week. Entered a new post on my blog today that I thought you might like. Have a good weekend!


  5. Excellent piece R!

  6. Check out my new blog: http://fighttheplasticbagban.com/

    On my blog I have a downloads menu item. If you click on that there are a number of papers that I have written that can be downloaded.

    One paper titled “Negative Health and Environmental Impacts of Reusable Shopping Bags” deals with the health issues more extensively than you did in the article above. For example, in addition to bacteria, viruses and virus transmission with reusable shopping bags could make other sick. Also, people who have AIDS or a suppressed immune system may be more sensitive to bacteria in reusable bags then people who have normal immune systems. About 20% of the population fit in this category.

    Also, when bag bans are implemented people always complain about all those plastic bags that end up in the landfill. But they have never stopped to calculate all the stuff going into a landfill after a plastic carryout bag ban compared to before. It would surprise you to know that 3 to 4 times the amount of material goes into the landfill post ban than pre ban. Those plastic carryout bags are sure looking good. see my article titled “Fact Sheet – Landfill Impacts” for the details and the calculations.

    There is much more.

    • Well, we may have to agree to disagree on much of this. I certainly take issue with your statements about reusable shopping bags. There’s no reason to suspect that a reusable shopping bag is inherently more dangerous as a vector of pathogens than a plastic shopping bag exposed to the same contagious elements. I’m not in the habit of storing my reusable shopping bags in my bathroom, as was the case in the oft-cited instance from the other year, and I do wash mine after shopping trips, keeping them clean and ready to carry my family’s groceries again (and again).

      I don’t take issue with the fact that there is a whole lot more to plastic waste in our landfills and oceans than plastic bags. But, as I mention above, plastic bag ban ordinances are the low-hanging fruit in our battle to change our relationship with petro-plastics; once we’ve shifted our behaviour with plastic bags (the “most ubiquitous consumer item in the world,” with 1 million used per minute, globally), we can move on to reducing and refusing other unnecessary plastics.

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