As Massachusetts approaches summer, a long-term debate on plastic bags is heating up. Four bills in the state's legislature propose banning the distribution of plastic carry-out bags by large retailers and/or imposing taxes that will make plastic bags less financially attractive. Most salient is the "Plastic Bag Reduction Act" submitted by State Representative Lori Ehrlich. The bill would effectively ban plastic bags at retail locations equal to or greater than 4,000 square feet in size, a proposal that has already alarmed some retailers and the associations that represent them. This debate may seem shocking to some, considering that single-use plastic bags have been a staple at grocery store check-out counters since the early 1980s
, but the environmental impacts of plastic bags have attracted national attention.
Every year 100 billion
plastic shopping bags are used in the United States and most are not recycled. While this figure is hard to visualize, the plastic waste is not. We see it every day. Plastic bags blow like tumbleweeds through our public parks, line roadside ditches and storm drains, and wash up on our shorelines. In the ocean, fish, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals often ingest marine debris that they mistake for food. This debris can collect in the animal's stomach, causing it to feel full and leading to starvation or malnutrition. In addition, plastic bags are not biodegradable. Although they do break down into smaller pieces through mechanical action and light exposure, processes can take 400-1,000 years
However, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts opposes a plastic bag ban
. Because paper bags are currently more expensive than plastic ones, a cost that would likely be passed onto the consumer, they argue that the consumption of goods will fall alongside a retailer's profit margins in the event of a ban. Instead, they support educational campaigns to encourage plastic recycling.
The proposed state-wide restriction follows on the heels of several Massachusetts towns that have already passed bans on the local level, including Nantucket, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Brookline and Great Barrington. In addition, other cities and even countries around the world have pulled the plug on plastic bags, as evidenced by this neat map
that shows where current bans exist.
Time will tell what decision Massachusetts will make, but for now, why not avoid plastic anyway?