Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Journal News

Bring your own bag to shop, help the environment


Posted: May 29, 2012
Originally Published: May 25, 2012

The ubiquitous plastic bag has emerged as a leading source of pollution over the last 50 years.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we use between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags globally each year. These bags, less than 3 percent of which are recycled, end up in our communities — littering our parks, roads, waterways and beaches. The plastic bags we discard never completely break down; they degrade into smaller pieces. Plastic pollution travels through local waterways, clogging storm drains and endangering wildlife, and eventually makes its way into the ocean.

Plastic in our marine waters kill tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles every year. Marine and avian life become ensnared in and strangled by discarded bags, and die from consuming the plastic, which mimics aquatic food. It is estimated that over 1 million seabirds and over 100,000 mammals die in the North Pacific region alone each year because of plastic pollution, including plastic bags. The average plastic bag is used for 12 minutes, but the damage can last decades.

Westchester parks were found to bring in $183 million per year for the county, and Long Island Sound alone supports an $8.5 billion tourism and recreation industry.

Millions of dollars a year are invested in the protection and restoration of our environment, yet plastic pollution remains a critical problem. Plastic bags contribute to the decline of Long Island Sound fisheries and lobster populations. According to the annual International Coastal Cleanup report, plastic bags are the second most common form of debris (after cigarette butts) found on beaches, and disposable bag pollution throughout the U.S. increased 13 percent between 2010 and 2011.
Simple solution

The problem may seem overwhelming, yet the solution is simple: BYOB — Bring Your Own Bag. We need to stop using harmful, toxic, disposable bags and make the switch to reusable bags. In 2011, Citizens Campaign for the Environment launched an educational BYOB campaign in Westchester County. Educational literature was distributed to residents, elected officials and store owners. Retailers were educated on reusable bag benefits and helpful store policies. Almost 30 small businesses throughout Westchester County committed to reducing or eliminating the use of harmful disposable bags and 300 individuals pledged to “kick the plastic bag habit.”

Many Westchester municipalities have begun to launch public education campaigns to promote reusable bag use, and BYOB movements have been sparked by concerned citizens and neighborhood groups throughout the county. The next step is to get individuals and retailers to permanently switch to reusable bags by passing legislation banning single-use disposable bags. Consumers have relied on disposable shopping bags because they appear to be free, but disposable bags are not free. Grocery stores estimate that plastic bags cost 1.6 cents each and paper bags cost 5.5 cents each. Retailers pay for the bags, and then pass those costs onto consumers.

During CCE’s BYOB campaign, 88 percent of Westchester residents surveyed said they would support a ban on single-use disposable bags in their town. Due to this type of public support, many municipalities have already begun to pass bans. In 2008, Westport, Conn., banned plastic bags and saw a 70 percent increase in reusable bag use during the first year the law was in effect. This sparked many Long Island Sound communities to consider similar legislation. Six months ago, the City of Rye emerged as a local leader in the BYOB movement when legislation banning single-use plastic bags passed unanimously. This legislation went into effect earlier this month, and people can already be seen shopping with reusable bags throughout the town. The success of this bag ban in Rye has neighboring municipalities, including Mamaroneck, Larchmont and Pelham Manor, to work toward adopting similar legislation.

Individuals, retailers and municipalities are now working together to protect local waterways, preserve our environment and promote conservation in everyday life. Disposable bags are costly; reusable bags save money. Disposable bags are remnants of past “throw-away” society practices, while reusable bags represent the future. Disposable bags are wasteful; reusable bags are sustainable. If you haven’t already, make the switch and BYOB. The next time you are asked paper or plastic, say “No thanks, I brought my own.”

The writer, who lives in White Plains, is Hudson Valley program coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan advocacy organization. The group states that it has 80,000 members and offices in Farmingdale, White Plains, Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and Hamden, Conn.