Editorial: Time to get plastic bag crisis under control

Follow example of recycled beverage containers

There are those of us alive in 2017 who still remember when you weren’t charged a nickel deposit on a bottle of soda.

Back before 1983 in New York, you just tossed the bottle away like everything else and didn’t think anything of it.

It either ended up in a landfill or the environment, spoiling the sides of roads, in wooded areas or in lakes and streams.

It was a mess.

But then we passed the bottle bill, requiring people to pay a charge on top of the purchase price of plastic and metal cans and bottles. If you wanted your money back, you had to return the bottle to a recycling area.

The legislation wasn’t very popular at the time. People complained about being charged extra money for a popular product, and they didn’t want to be burdened with the task of collecting and returning all those cans and bottles just to get their own money back.

But the legislation halted a growing environmental disaster of epic proportions, the  benefits of which are still being felt today.

Bottle bills helped reduce roadside container litter by 70 percent.

In 2015, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the law led to the recycling of 4.6 billion plastic, glass and aluminum beverage containers totaling more than 306,000 tons. As an added benefit to the environment, the recycling of these beverage containers helps eliminate 200,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.

We griped about it. Some of us blew it off. But we got used to it. We made it more convenient. We expanded it. And now we enthusiastically embrace it as if it was always the law of the land.

Now we need to do the same thing with plastic bags.

A revealing New York Times editorial last week highlighted the worldwide environmental crisis created by the explosion of single-use plastic bags, the kind we take home our groceries in.

And it spotlighted the extraordinary efforts some countries are taking to control the growth.

The editorial featured Kenya, where manufacturers and importers of plastic bags face fines of up to $38,000 and even jail terms for selling plastic bags. Retailers in that country can no longer sell them.

And shoppers who use them can have them confiscated.

Plastic bags have been blamed for causing floods, backing up wastewater treatment centers and clogging pipes. More than 40 countries either tax, limit or ban plastic bags. If you travel to Europe in 2019, you won’t be able to get one for free.

Here’s a statistic from the editorial that will knock your socks off.

By 2050, the United Nations estimates, there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish.

That’s right. All the plastic will weigh more than all the fish.

Plastic bags are a major contributor to that statistic.

New York has its own issues with the bags.

In announcing the creation of a statewide plastic bag task force in March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office noted that New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags each year. Billion. Many of them end up not only in landfills, but in streets, wooded areas and lakes.

Starting to sound familiar?

And while the bottle recycling programs initiated decades ago cost taxpayers nothing, disposing of that many tons of non-biodegradable plastic bags costs taxpayers plenty.

New York City — where roughly 43 percent of the state’s population resides — collects 88,400 tons of plastic bags every year, at a disposal cost of $12.5 million. That’s $12.5 million that could be going to fix the subways or build more homeless shelters or hire more police officers. Instead, it’s going to the disposal of plastic bags. That’s happening all across the state.

We need to address the plastic bag crisis just like we addressed the crisis of bottles and cans — through legislation, financial incentives to discourage usage, and educational efforts to focus public attention on the impact these bags are having on the environment, our government and our taxes.

In the past, we’ve endorsed the concept of adding an extra charge for each bag used, say 5 or 10 cents. New York City’s 5-cent charge was shot down just before the Cuomo task force was initiated. But that could be resurrected as one of the task force’s recommendations.

Some people have suggested financial incentives for customers who use recyclable bags, kind of a pro-active approach to the problem. A number of supermarket chains already do that, giving people a discount if they use no plastic bags.

And some have suggested an all-out ban on single-use plastic bags, as environmentally conscious

California voters authorized in 2016.

In the past, we’ve deemed a full ban on the bags as too drastic. But if the problem isn’t addressed significantly and soon, that may become a viable option.

Local and county governments don’t have to wait for state or federal action to get moving. They can propose their own legislation to deal with the problem now, rather than wait to see if the state decides to act.

We also need to give manufacturers incentives to eliminate plastic bags and to mass-produce environmentally friendly alternatives.

Just as we all eventually accepted the bottle returns, we’ll all get used to other options to plastic grocery bags. We’ll pay the nickel or dime without complaining. We’ll get used to bringing our own recyclable bags to the store. And a generation from now, kids won’t ever have known any other way.

Good environmental practices are easy to make into habit, especially when one considers the many benefits that derive from them.

We’ve reached a plastic bag crisis in this state, in this country and across the planet.

It’s time we took major steps to get it under control.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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