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?

The Majestic Plastic Bag: A Mockumentary

This summer, California legislators considered a statewide ban on plastic bags. Ultimately it failed due to strong opposition pressure–and spending–in the state Senate. But the campaign supporting AB 1998 prompted some great creative tactics, like this video from Heal the Bay. It’s narrated by Jeremy Irons, and tells the tale of one forlorn plastic bag’s journey from store to sea:

What Is a Bag Fee?

Members of the alliance are hoping to see legislation passed next year that would create a fee on single-use plastic and paper shopping bags. But what is it?

The legislation puts a new focus on reducing the amount of trash that enters Maryland’s waterways and bolsters a fund dedicated to the cleanup and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. The legislation represents a unique attempt to work with business and environmental leaders to develop a shared strategy to reduce the amount of trash in the Chesapeake Bay and coastal waterways.

How the Initiative Works

  • The legislation will place a small 5-cent fee on all single-use plastic and paper carryout bags from stores that sell food (which includes grocery stores, food vendors, convenience stores, drug stores, and others) and liquor stores.
  • The legislation requires that these plastic and paper carryout bags be recyclable.

Community Education and Outreach

  • The legislation delays implementation for 6 months to a year, requiring the state to conduct an intensive public information campaign and outreach that includes providing reusable carryout bags to residents for free, and work with service providers to distribute multiple free reusable bags to seniors and low-income households.

How the Fee Would Be Used

  • The 5-cent fee will be divided between the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the business.
  • The bulk of the fee will be deposited into the Trust to target environmental cleanup, reclamation, and restoration efforts on the Chesapeake Bay and other impaired waterways, as well as continue a public education campaign and provide free reusable bags to Maryland residents, in particular to elderly and low-income residents.
  • Businesses will retain either 1 or 2 cents of the fee, depending whether they offer customers a carryout bag credit program for reusable bags.

Where Has This Been Tried Before

  • Other cities are moving in this direction. In Washington, DC, after just one month of a similar fee, demand for plastic bags dropped as much as 80%. Cities and countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa also have this type of program. These initiatives have dramatically cut down on these single-use bags – by as much as 90% in some places. Volunteers in DC report a significant drop in bags collected at recent river cleanup events.
  • In addition, many businesses are already taking similar steps on their own in addition to selling low-cost durable, reusable bags. Discount food stores like ALDI and Save-A-Lot, and even IKEA, charge customers a nominal fee for every bag – greatly reducing the number of plastic and paper bags used and encouraging customers to bring reusable bags.

12 Minutes to Blight

On average, a disposable bag has a useful life of 12 minutes, from the store to your home, to the trash. Nationwide fewer than 5% of single-use plastic bags are recycled, leading to the ubiquitous “plastic tumbleweed” that chokes sewer systems, farm equipment, and marine life.

According to a recent study, single-use plastic bags comprise as much as 50% of the trash littering streams in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and their effects downstream are widely reported.

This year Washington, DC, became the first city in the nation to charge 5 cents for single-use plastic and paper bags, in an effort to cut down on the volume of bags littering local waterways. The fee also generates the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, which will pay for additional trash-control measures as well as free reusable bags for those in need. In mere weeks, the city saw bag use drop by as much as 80%. Volunteers at river cleanups are reporting as many as 50% fewer bags collected.