A Big Week for Bag Bills

Plastic litter reduction proposals are sweeping the nation, with lots of activity just this week:

Yesterday, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of Oregon’s Senate heard public debate on SB 536, which would ban disposable plastic bags and put a five-cent charge on paper sacks. This legislation seeks to bring consistency to the state’s bag regulations, as Portland has already passed such a ban. Surfrider Foundation’s Portland Chapter has been a leading proponent of the Ban the Bag campaign in the state.

Today, February 9, Connecticut’s Environment Committee is debating a proposal to put a 5-cent fee on both plastic and paper shopping bags (like DC has and Maryland could have). Again, this would provide consistency across the state, as some stores and municipalities already have bans. You can watch the debate online starting at 11 am, or later via the archive.

And of course tomorrow the Trash Free Maryland Alliance is hosting our Waste in Our Waterways panel at the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis. Join us for a discussion of why Maryland needs the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, followed by a screening of the film Oceans of Plastic. It all starts at 11:30 in room 142.

Waste in our Waterways Panel – Feb. 10

Waste in our Waterways Panel Discussion Thursday, February 10

Please join a distinguished panel for a discussion of trash in our waterways, and hear about the success of Washington, DC in enacting a small fee on disposable bags. After finding that a significant percentage of the trash floating in the Anacostia River was plastic bags, the Council of the District of Columbia took decisive action to limit the source of that pollution.

Thursday, February 10, 11:30AM – 2 PM
House Office Building, Room 142
6 Bladen Street
Annapolis, MD

At the conclusion of a Q/A session with our distinguished panel, supporters will be sticking around to view Oceans of Plastic, a film about the mounting danger of single use plastics in our waterways and oceans.

The Panel will feature:

MD Delegate Al Carr (District 18)
The lead sponsor of the Bag Bill in the MD House of Representatives

DC Council Member Tommy Wells (Ward 6)
The lead proponent of the successful DC Bag Bill

Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey
A community leader working to ban plastic bags in her municipality to protect the Chester River

Andrew Harris
A researcher from MD who is developing an ocean sampler to measure the concentration of plastic particles in the North Pacific Trash Gyre

The Panel will be facilitated by Brent Bolin
The Director of Advocacy for The Anacostia Watershed Society

For more information please visit: www.TrashFreeMaryland.org


Apologies for the late notice…

Due to last night’s weather, several of our panelists are unable to make it to Annapolis today, and we are working to reschedule the panel and film event. Check back here for more details.

In the meantime, please take two minutes to contact your legislators to ask their support for this bill. You can send a quick e-mail here.

Exploring the alternatives

By Barb Krupiarz, Sierra Club

Estimates of plastic bag usage across the globe are between 500 billion and 1 trillion each year. With the conservative estimate, that is still almost 1 million bags used per minute. The US EPA estimates that less than 5% are recycled each year. Even if some bags are reused, the worldwide litter problem from plastic bags is still immense. And, the cost of these “free” bags to retailers is over $4 billion each year – another cost tacked on to the consumer.

So, what are the alternatives? Some say to recycle more. But, at 1 million bags used per minute, can we keep up with that rate for recycling? The American Chemistry Council sites the plastic lumber manufacturer, Trex, as the largest recycler of plastic bags in the U.S. with 1.5 billion bags recycled every year and making up 10% of their product. The problem is that U.S. consumers use 100 billion bags per year and the fact remains that plastics are a major cause of ocean pollution. In 2006, the U.N. estimated that oceans have 46,000 pieces of plastic in them for every square mile.

What about switching to biodegradable, cornstarch-based bags? There are several problems with this alternative. The first is that the cost to manufacture these bags is currently much higher than the cost of conventional plastic bags. These bags are made from roughly 5% starch, but also a petroleum-based polyester and don’t really degrade in a home compost bins or landfills. Finally, these bags cannot be recycled with ordinary bags and contaminate the recycling stream.

What about recyclable paper instead? While paper recycling is readily available, paper bag manufacturing still requires large amounts of natural resources and causes a significant amount of pollution.

The debate about plastic vs. paper still goes on today, but the bottom line is that the best solution eliminating disposable bags that have a life span of 12 minutes and replacing them with reusable bags.

There’s "marine debris," and then there’s just trash

Students at NorthBay Adventure Camp are learning a lot about trash in our water. Even ice doesn’t keep them from cleaning up the Chesapeake beach along the camp. Check out this video the kids made:

Marine Debris (1/6/11) from NorthBay Media on Vimeo.

What do cleanup volunteers find?

At a summer cleanup of the Back River, it was “lots of plastic bags,” plus cans, cups, and other food packaging.

Video by the Back River Restoration Committee.

Who benefits when we reduce our waste?

When you think of trash, and the people who work to combat it, do you mostly think of environmentalists? It’s actually a concern to more people than you think!

– Farmers: Plastic bags and other trash get caught in their machinery, and can make livestock sick. The value of a cotton crop falls when plastic gets mixed in, and cleaning the trash out of a cotton gin is dangerous work! Check out this editorial from the Virginian-Pilot about waste-reduction support from the Virginia Farm Bureau.

– Boaters: Ever gotten a bag or fishing line caught around your outboard motor? Not very good for the motor, huh?

– Departments of Transportation: Cleaning up trash from the sides of our highways and byways costs a lot of money. In Maryland, it’s as much as $29 per bag of trash collected. The Roanoke Times reported that it’s time-consuming too:

[City Councilman Court] Rosen emphasized that the council’s support for consideration of the measure resulted from hearing from the city’s transportation division that picking up plastic bags along rights of way before mowing was taking more time than the actual mowing.

– Businesses: While many places still give us bags for our purchases for free, they do cost money. A typical grocery store pays 2 cents for each plastic bag, and 5 cents for each paper bag. If we take fewer bags, the business saves money!

– Landfills: They’re in the business of taking our trash, but some of our stuff they just don’t want. One landfill builder in Maryland says he has to put 40-foot-high fences around new landfills to keep plastic bags inside–otherwise, they catch the wind and just decorate the trees in the area. I’m sure that fence wasn’t cheap.

– Food pantries: They serve a vital role in the community, providing food and other services to those in need. But they operate on a shoestring and, just as for their clients, every little bit helps. Bread for the City, a food pantry in Washington, DC, began distributing groceries in reusable bags in 2010, thanks to donations from corporations and grocery stores like Safeway. They made a deal with their clients: Bring back the cloth bags next week, and we’ll give you an extra pound of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s been a smashing success. Not only are the families getting more fresh, healthy food, but BFC has saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy new bags every week.

Who else in our community benefits from less trash?

Baltimore Rolls Out a New Voluntary Ban on Plastic Bags

The Sun’s B’More Green has an article today about Baltimore’s new program, where stores, in essence, voluntarily ban plastic bags. Stores that wish to continue distributing single-use plastic bags must be registered with the city, ask each customer if they want a bag (rather than automatically using one), and offer recycling of bags on location. Enforcement is handled by city health inspectors, since they are already at the stores and eateries for food regulation requirements.

It sounds pretty convoluted, but I’m curious to see if this works. China has a poorly enforced ban on plastic bags that actually has reduced use by upwards of 50%. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that simple peer pressure (i.e., the checker asking if a customer wants a bag) is surprisingly effective in reducing waste. But so far about a third of Baltimore’s retailers–likely mostly large chains–have declared that they like single-use plastic, which is discouraging when so many alternatives are available. And the rollout of this program has not been smooth:

City officials didn’t get the online registration system set up until shortly before the ordinance was to take effect on Sept. 1, and many merchants complained they hadn’t been able to log in so they could legally keep giving out plastic bags. Others said they simply didn’t know anything about what they were supposed to do. An embarrassed City Council was forced to delay the law’s startup.

At any rate, hopefully it’s a start. And if it doesn’t accomplish the goals of the Office of Sustainability, hopefully they’ll pursue stronger, more effective solutions.

Plastic State of Mind

Here’s a great music video parody of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” from filmmaker Ben Zolno. Love the jamming Bag Monsters.

Where is "away"?

After a rainstorm in Maryland, it’s the Bay. From the Baltimore Sun:

Yesterday’s downpour did more than flood Fells Point and spill sewage into the Jones Falls. It trashed the Inner Harbor. … The water’s surface was carpeted with plastic drink bottles and foam cups, a ball or two and lots of leaves, branches and other debris.

Anybody have their own account of trashy water following our recent storms?