September 30, 2008
No More Plastic Bags
Westport, Conn., this month became the latest of a handful of communities to ban some plastic bags. The bags, which have only a brief, useful life, can survive forever in landfills and are of enormous concern to not only environmentalists but local officials who are running out of places to put their trash.
Westport’s ordinance will take effect in six months and applies to bags dispensed at checkout counters. Others, like dry cleaning bags, will be exempted. The aim is to reduce litter and encourage customers to tote their groceries in reusable cloth bags.
The town’s stand is laudable but will have only a limited effect on what is, after all, a statewide problem. The Connecticut Legislature rebuffed a proposed statewide ban last year. Massachusetts and Maine considered similar bans and also backed down.
Americans use and dispose of at least 100 billion bags every year. Although the plastics industry points out that plastic grocery bags are made more from natural gas than petroleum, natural gas is not a renewable resource and contributes to global warming. And about only 5 percent of all plastic bags are recycled nationwide. The rest end up in the trash, hanging in trees or floating in water where they menace marine life.
There are other possible remedies, including a constructive idea that has taken hold in Ireland. In 2002, Ireland became the first country in the world to impose a tax on plastic bags. Use of the bags dropped by 90 percent, and proceeds from the tax went to environmental causes.
If Ireland is any guide, tax laws may have greater impact on human behavior than recycling laws. Tax law could also be written to apply to an entire state, thus eliminating the need for town-by-town bans.