The Single-Use Plastic Dilemma — It’s Complicated

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Banning single-use plastics is not a one size fits all proposition. What’s good for West Tisbury may not be good for Oak Bluffs — two towns on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Three towns on the island — West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah — have approved a ban on 1 liter or smaller single-use beverage bottles. The ban goes into effect May 1.

single use plastic ban
Image credit: Plastic Free MV

On January 28, three students from West Tisbury School made a plea of the Board of Selectmen of Oak Bluffs to enact a similar ban. To make up for the lack of single use drink bottles, the students, who are members of Plastic Free MV, told town selectmen they would like to see water refilling stations added to most businesses and public areas in the town, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

But all politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill liked to say. The selectmen were receptive but said getting the bylaw passed down-Island in Oak Bluffs, which attracts far more tourists each year than West Tisbury, would be a different challenge. “Down-Island towns, especially Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, have a different impact than the up-Island towns, and there’s a major financial impact,” said selectman Gail Barmakian. “It’s hard to compare the up-Island and down-Island towns because the number of people that come through down-Island towns is exponential,” selectman Greg Coogan said.

Selectman Brian Packish told the students, “My phone’s off the hook from Oak Bluffs businesses that are completely unhappy with this conversation. That doesn’t mean that that’s how I feel, or anybody else on the board feels; it’s just important we’re mindful of that portion of our constituency as well.” He suggested the group hold a forum at the board’s next meeting on Feb. 11, where business owners and other members of the public could learn more about the bylaw. West Tisbury teacher Annemarie Ralph, who accompanied the students to the meeting, told the board that Plastic Free MV has held such forums but not many people showed up.

“Personally, I think it’s great, I think we all do,” selectman Michael Santoro said. “We’re just worried about a financial hit that some of these businesses could take … it’s a little different in our town than in other towns.” Gail Barmakian said the group needs to reach out directly to businesses to talk about how the bylaw could impact them. That right there is how politics is done at the local level and proof that Tip O’Neill was right.

South Dakota Loves Plastic Waste!

Out in South Dakota, it’s a completely different story. There the legislature is considering a new bill that would prohibit cities and towns from banning single-use plastics, according to CNN. No local politics for South Dakota, no sirree! The boys in the capitol will tell the citizens what they can can or cannot have and they can like it or lump it.

Senator John Wiik is the sponsor of the bill, which was approved by the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee on January 28 and will now be considered by the full Senate. He tells CNN that cities in South Dakota shouldn’t ban plastic “auxiliary containers” because the state is basically one large, “spread-out small town. We have to realize that as small towns are struggling to keep retail thriving, we’re seeing people driving farther and farther to do basic shopping for groceries.”

“I don’t expect hockey parents from Pierre to know if Watertown or Mitchell has a ban on ‘auxiliary containers,’ and I don’t believe that people who live in areas near big towns should have those decisions made for them.” He added that South Dakota has a smaller population than states that ban single-use plastics and that small retail stores and convenience stores in South Dakota are at a disadvantage when trying to find reasonably priced bags, food containers, cups, and straws.

Senator Jeff Monroe, a member of the Commerce and Energy Committee, supports the bill. “Every time I think about a plastic coffee can getting thrown in the river, it doesn’t bother me at all because it sinks to the bottom and it’s habitat for bait fish, it’s habitat for crayfish,” Moore said according to Dakota Radio Group. He said he puts pieces of plastic in his garden because it helps separate the soil and allows his plants to grow better. As Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up!

Local Solutions For Global Issues

Despite the dangerously naive beliefs of people like Jeff Monroe, the world is drowning in plastic waste and many jurisdictions are trying to figure out the best response to the problem. In Rhode Island, a bill is before the legislature to ban single-use plastic bags, but it is being held up over squabbles about how to define “single use” and debates about whether a 5 cent fee on paper bags places an unfair economic burden on low income families. Whether or not the bill gets passed, nearly half of the cities and towns in the Ocean State have already passed bans on single-use plastic bags.

In New Jersey a similar bill is under consideration in the state legislature, but it goes a step further by also banning single-use paper bags. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, tells Inside New Jersey, “This is landmark legislation for New Jersey. This bill is a major step forward in dealing with single-use plastic bags as well as polystyrene and plastic straws. Polystyrene is dangerous to human health because it contains carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene and styrene, and it has been found in breast milk. It is harmful to the environment because it is not recyclable and does not degrade. Plastic straws pollute our oceans and beaches.

“Last year, New Jersey found that more than 80% of their trash is plastic and found an increase in plastic straw waste by 59%. By reducing how much plastic we use, we can also reduce fracking and fossil fuel use. Plastics are made from natural gas, which means more fossil fuel use, more pipelines, and more fracking.”

Much Ado About Nothing

Howard County, Maryland is also considering a plastic bag fee of a nickel and some merchants are freaking out. Brenda Franz, who owns Attic Antiques N Things on Main Street in Ellicott City, tells the Baltimore Sun that small businesses like hers should be exempt from the fee. “When my customers come in here, they almost all want a bag,” Franz said. “I have the financial burden of buying those bags to give out to people. I also have the burden of record keeping.”

Many small shops in Howard County only have a few employees, she adds, and the fee puts more responsibility on local business owners. “I could live with grocery stores and big box stores [getting the fee], but hitting the small business person is another notch in the belt to squeeze us out and then we go out of business. We’re not Walmart; we cannot afford this.”

James Chang is president of LA Mart, a Maryland-based grocery chain that specializes in international foods and has a store in Columbia, a city in Montgomery County which has had a 5-cent bag fee on bags distributed by merchants since 2012. “At first, a lot of customers [in Montgomery County] complained, but [the] reduction of plastic bag usage was unbelievable,” Chang says.

And here’s something else to consider. It is estimated the bag fee will bring in almost $700,000 a year to Howard county. That money will be used to provide reusable bags to low income residents; make grants to entities engaged in water quality and water pollution education; support environmental education programs, including stream cleanups and anti-littering education; and create activities to educate the public about the benefits and methods of reducing the use of disposable plastic products.

Plastics Are Everywhere

Local merchants and fast food restaurants may have legitimate complaints about plastic bans, but what is the alternative? Just last week the FDA announced a recall of 2,000 lbs of ground beef that had pieces of plastic embedded in it. That marks the third month in a row that hamburger recalls have been initiated because of plastic contamination, according to Forbes. In November, 67 tons of raw ground beef products were recalled. Then in December another 7.5 tons were called back.

Microplastics have been found on top of the highest mountains and in the deepest parts of the oceans.  They are washing ashore on beaches on uninhabited islands thousands of miles from the nearest shipping lanes. They are in human breast milk and in the water we drink. Every American has plastic particles embedded in his or her body tissues. And all because the plastics industry has convinced governments they should be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of pollution to the Earth’s environment in their unquenchable quest for profits.

Plastics are a symptom of the weaponized capitalism that virtually guarantees an existential climate crisis will occur on Earth within the next 100 years. And when our grandchildren ask us why we did nothing to stop it, what will we tell them? That a nickel for a plastic bag was too expensive? Good luck getting them to swallow that garbage and forgiving us for our failure to act responsibly.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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