This is the holiday season in the United States. People are buying gifts and carrying them home, usually in plastic shopping bags. They are only a small amount of the huge number of disposableplastic bags that are used all year long to contain groceries and other items.
Janet Larsen directs research for the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She says too many plastic bags end up as litter, polluting waterways.
“They get caught in bushes and trees. In storm water systems, they end up clogging up sewers.”
In an effort to keep plastic bags out of the environment, California recently became the first state to ban businesses from giving new plastic bags to customers. Some other states and cities charge a small amount of money for every bag given out. That is meant to encourage people to bring their own bags when they go shopping.
Mark Daniels is senior vice president for environmental policy at Hilex Poly, one of the country’s largest plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers. He says people should be able to get new plastic bags without paying. Mr. Daniels says they are a good environmental choice.
“Every single scientific litter study that has been done always show that plastic retail are a fraction of one percent.”
Some environmentalists claim that plastic bags are clogginglandfills. However, Mark Daniels points to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency that says that is not always true.
“All plastic bags, not just retail bags, are 4/10ths of one percent the waste stream.”
Five years ago, Washington D.C. placed a 5-cent fee on every plastic bag given out by businesses in the city. The money is being used to clean up the local Anacostia watershed.
And the effort is making a difference. Brian Van Wye heads storm waterprogram implementation at the city’s Department of the Environment. He says once people started to pay for plastic bags, they used less of them. Fewer bags ended up in the waterways.
“The stream clean-up groups are telling us that they’ve seen a 60 percent reduction in the disposal bags that they find while they’re doing stream cleanups.”
He also says that’s helping to save water life.
“We also know that plastic bags, they break down over time. It's something aquatic life will consume and ingest and that can cause serious harm and potentially death for aquatic life like fish and turtles.”
But customers who say they need shopping bags aren’t always happy about paying for them. At a Washington restaurant, Bill Ford says he has to use a bag to carry out his lunch.
“I don’t know why some people need to pay because, some people, a small minority of people are throwing stuff into rivers and waterways.”
Still, Carol Powers, who also paid for a bag, approves of Washington’s program.
“It seems kind of silly to pay five cents for a bag, but if that’s what it takes to help save the environment, then it’s a good idea.”
Hilex Poly and other manufacturers are recycling the bags. Mark Daniels says that is a betteralternativethan taxing or banning them.
“We reprocess it, we clean it, we shred it, we make new post-consumer recycle product and put that back into the manufacturing of new bags.”
But Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute doesn’t think that’s the answer.
“The plastic bag industry has often used recycling as a deterrent for communities that, even when residents are saying, we want to limit these. It really doesn’t help to minimize the problems. What we would advocate for would be a washable, reusable bag to take the place of all those plastic bags.”
Bags like the one Carol Chastang uses to carry her lunch…
“This is my contribution to keeping the environment cleaner and safer.”
More than 18 million Americans now live in communities that tax or ban plastic bags, and that number is expected to go up again next year.
I’m Anne Ball.
Words in This Story
litter – n.things that have been thrown away and are lying on the ground in a public place
disposable-n.something that is made to be thrown away after it is used once
clog– v. to slowly form a block in (something, such as a pipe or street) so that things cannot move through quickly or easily
alternative– adj. offering or expressing a choice.