Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: Newsday

OpEd: Kern-Rugile: Carrot & stick on plastic bags


Posted: June 2, 2012
Originally Published: May 31, 2012

I've covered the "going green" movement as a journalist for several years, aiming to illustrate how to tread more lightly on the planet. Yet just yesterday, when I stopped at my local grocery store, I forgot my reusable canvas bags. I (probably) know better than your average shopper the reasons our addiction to plastic is such an eco no-no. And still, I blew it.

Many people have gotten the BYOB (bring your own bag) message, but like me, don't always follow through. According to a recent survey of more than 400 Huntington-area shoppers conducted by Citizens Campaign for the Environment, only 19 percent said they always bring reusable bags when they shop. Some 35 percent said they never do.

So the organization, in partnership with the Town of Huntington and the villages of Northport and Port Jefferson, is trying to change public behavior with a two-pronged approach.
The first piece involves an educational campaign in which the group is asking local store owners to put up signs in shop windows that remind people to bring their own bags. Stores are also being asked to hand out brochures that detail the problems with plastic and to train cashiers to ask customers if they have their own bag.

But education, while crucial, isn't enough to change behavior. The other half of the solution is a word that strikes fear in the hearts of many: legislation.

Assemb. Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) and Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) have sponsored a bill that would place a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags -- a policy that, while creating some minor inconvenience, ought to be passed.

"From the national to the local level, legislation that either bans or places a fee on single-use bags has created a successful shift in behavior," says Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign.

Just one example: When Washington, D.C., implemented the nickel fee in January 2010, the result was a 70 percent reduction in use of plastic bags in the first five months. Other areas have gone further and banned plastic bags. Southampton Village became the first New York municipality to do so last year. A ban in Rye began last month.

Why is this issue so important? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans use about a half-million plastic bags every minute. Some 200,000 are put in landfills every hour, and those bags take 1,000 years to break down -- if they do at all. Worldwide, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year.

The damage to the environment is far more pervasive than you might expect, especially to an area like Long Island that is inextricably tied to water -- not only for drinking, but for recreation and tourism. Plastic bags clog storm drains, causing localized flooding. Many plastic bags end up along roadways, parks and beaches.

Bags eventually end up in our bays, harbors and the ocean, endangering marine life. Whales, birds, seals and other wildlife eat them, mistaking them for food, or die when they become entangled in massive "plastic islands" -- areas in the ocean that span thousands of square miles.

But if danger to dolphins doesn't motivate you to BYOB, how about that sucking sound coming from your wallet? Plastic bags are made from petroleum and natural gas, finite resources that are best used elsewhere. In addition, producing and transporting the bags is another waste of energy.

The old saying is true: It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. And it's hard to teach humans of any age to adopt new behaviors. Even when we're educated about why change is required, we tend to follow our old habits.

It's unlikely that we'll break our plastic bag addiction until there are both financial incentives and legislative measures to compel us to do so. Our legislators should add the fee.

Jenna Kern-Rugile lives in East Northport.