By Barbara Kessler
This month two major US cities pushed the case against plastic disposables a little bit farther down the road.
It wasn’t easy. In Dallas, city council member Dwaine Caraway started out wanting a full bag ban, like dozens of cities have enacted.
It seemed almost within reach, even in conservative Texas. Austin (which some would argue is not really within conservative Texas) had taken a full swing at plastic waste with a law that yanked plastic and paper bags from grocery stores in 2013 and Brownsville also took a stern approach, enacting a stout $1 fee on plastic and paper grocery bags that went into effect in 2011.
Dallas only managed to pass a “partial ban” (technically an oxymoron) this week, because it lacked the votes for the full enchilada. But this still represents big progress. There will now be a small penalty in place for those who persist in using those flighty, mischievous little bags that end up in the Trinity River, snagged in trees and waving from fence lines. When the law takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, people will have to pay 5 cents for a plastic or paper bag. That may only be 10 or 20 cents per grocery trip, but it could be just enough to persuade shoppers to think on the topic and bring a reusable tote.
In California, where dozens of cities enacted plastic bag ordinances over the last three years, the laws typically both ban plastic bags and place a fee on paper bags. Dallas will have at least half of that winning formula.
What’s more, the progress in Dallas represents a new inland stronghold in a movement that’s been most warmly embraced on the coasts, where people can clearly see that no good comes from plastic bags that inevitably escape human possession to strangle wildlife and jam up water outlets; bags that, near as humans can tell, won’t degrade for hundreds of years.
In the US, you can find bag bans in the Hamptons, the Outer Banks and up and down the West Coast. The whole bag ban trend started in a big way on an island, in Ireland, in 2002; though Nantucket can say it beat the Irish by 12 years, with a bag ban in 1990, according to the Surfrider Foundation.
Now it’s time for the major cities across the U.S. to join LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C., Austin and Dallas, by blotting out the plastic bag blight.
The next step, if cities want to rise to the challenge, will be to squash the plastic bottle habit, the other indefensible use of disposable plastic. These bottles, in our service for a few minutes, hang out in landfills or the ocean for hundreds of years. Ban the Bottle estimates that Americans use about 50 billion of them every year. Recycling can lessen the problem, but only about one-quarter are recycled, and even that fails to change the fundamental equation. The plastic consumes 17 million barrels of oil during its manufacture, and then remains with us, in its first or second iteration, in landfills or worse, in waterways.
So far, only a very few cities have waded into this battle, in which the foes loom much larger than in the plastic bag arena. Plastic bottle pushers include some of the world’s largest corporations, namely the soda companies, whose profits depend upon our continuing failure to adopt reusables, though their argument in favor of plastic bottled water seems weak. “The consumer should have a choice on how they drink their water,” American Beverage Association spokeswoman Kate Krebs told the San Francisco Examiner this winter.
Even San Francisco didn’t drive full throttle into this wall of opposition. But the Bay Area environmental leader did draw a line in the sand on March 4 by passing a plastic bottle ban that forbids the city from buying or distributing plastic water bottles under 21 ounces.
Like Dallas’ move, this “partial ban,” doesn’t go as far as some on the council envision. It includes an exclusion for city marathons and sporting events. But it sent a signal, and keeps the city on the right side of an issue that’s likely to be hard-fought, if it’s fought.
Let’s hope that unlike plastic, our tolerance for these disposables will not last forever.
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