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Commentary: Maybe We Should Ban Paper Bags, Too
By David Pogue
Special to WestportNow
I generally write about technology. But this week, I got to be part of the government process in Westport in a small way, and I thought I’d write up my experience.
See, last week, in my blog, I wrote about how hard it can be to make the right environmental choices. Every product has upstream and downstream ecological costs, and sometimes they’re impossible to calculate. I used, as one key example, the paper-vs.-plastic shopping bag debate.
Imagine my surprise when, a couple of days later, a reader let me know that the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) right here in Westport was considering an outright ban on plastic shopping bags, and that the public would be invited to speak before the vote.
Personally, I can’t stand the thought of what these 500 billion plastic bags are doing every year. On average, you use a plastic shopping bag for *12 minutes*—and then you throw it away. (It’s always driven me crazy when the drugstore clerk tries to give me a plastic bag when all I’m buying is a pack of AA batteries.)
The thing is, you can’t ever really throw one away. In landfills, plastic bags don’t biodegrade; they’ll sit there for 1,000 years.
On the surface, in sun or in water, it’s even worse. The bags break down, all right—into tiny plastic pellets that get eaten by birds and sea life and, of course, kill them.
The best part: after a dead sea animal decays, the plastic particles live on, ready to be eaten by the next generation. In one study, there’s six times as much plastic as plankton, by mass, in the North Pacific (http://tinyurl.com/2w2lua).
Anyway, the hearing was packed. About 15 people got up to speak about the proposed law. Most were Westporters, every single one of whom encouraged the town’s leaders to pass the ban (I was among them).
At one point, a guy from the American Chemical Council (read: the plastics industry) stood up to speak against the ban. He cited, I kid you not, the “Hispanic single mother of three” and the “Afro-American father trying to make ends meet” who would lose their jobs if we stop consuming plastic bags.
(The next speaker, a resident, gave a speech that was right out of a movie screenplay. “There’s only one person in this room who’s been paid to be here,” he said, furious, referring to the plastics guy. “And HE doesn’t walk on our beaches, shop in our stores, or have kids in our schools.”)
I’m generally pretty cynical about government. Plenty of other towns nearby have failed to pass ordinances like this, so I didn’t really expect ours to succeed.
But lo and behold, after almost four hours of public debate, the town’s volunteer governing body passed the ban, 26 to 5. Starting six months from now, there will be no more plastic shopping bags at the cash registers in Westport.
Let the hate mail begin!
Already, there’s anger and unhappiness. In the comments on WestportNow.com, you already can read how some residents are furious. They say that their personal freedoms are being infringed (although, of course, the ordinance doesn’t say YOU can’t use plastic bags—only that stores can’t give them away at the register).
They point to a thousand other environmental steps that could also be taken (true, but why not start somewhere?).
The biggest problem, of course, is that the ordinance doesn’t ban *paper* bags. They’re no environmental saint, either. In fact, it takes more energy to make and ship paper than plastic.
Some residents would have preferred a ban on both paper and plastic. If the goal is for people to just bring canvas bags to the stores, as they do in Europe without batting an eye, that would have been a better law.
Three things, though. First, the ordinance includes a marketing campaign to encourage the use of those reusable bags. (As First Selectman Gordon Joseloff noted at the hearing: Why don’t the grocery stores give them away, emblazoned with their logos? It’s the best kid of free advertising.) So with luck, and education, paper use will decline, too.
Second, plastic’s infinite lifespan makes me consider it a nastier *kind* of environmental damage. Paper bags, at least, are biodegrade. Plastic bags will be with us, ton upon ton, forever.
Finally, you have to start somewhere. The new law likely will be reviewed by the RTM in the future, and it could be repealed or amended as necessary. Maybe paper bags will be part two.
I see this ordinance in the same light as the pooper scooper law, the seatbelt law, bottle deposits, and smoking bans in public places: they’re small inconveniences for the public good.
In the meantime, Westport is now the first municipality on the East Coast to ban plastic bags—in fact, the first one east of California. With luck, the experiment will succeed, and the idea will spread.
As I said at the RTM meeting, we generally think of our American forebears as unsophisticated and naïve—people walking around in black-and-white, with sort of sped-up, jerky movements. They smoked, they didn’t wear seat belts, they used DDT. They didn’t have a clue.
We already know that the plastic bags are a disaster. So why not take any steps we can, no matter how small, no matter how tiny the community, to ensure that our descendants won’t see us as equally clueless?
David Pogue, a Westport resident, is a newspaper technology columnist.
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