Earth Matters: Get with the plastic bag ban!

Patti Wood

This new year brings the effective dates of single-use plastic bag bans in many places around the country, including the city of Boston and even closer to home, 19 New Jersey municipalities. 

But Nassau County is still arguing about banning these ubiquitous polluters.  In fact, I was present at a press conference in Mineola last year where proponents of a new plastic bag law were extolling its importance and urgency. 

A legislator I did not know came up to me and told me that the bill was “going nowhere.”  He was right. 

It is amazing to me that Nassau County did not pass this legislation, as the scourge of plastic waste is impacting every living thing on this planet and banning single-use plastic bags is, well, the very least we can do.  

I have personally watched bag bans go into effect with virtually seamless integration into the world of retail. Suffolk County did it, and now shoppers in our neighboring county either buy a bag at the checkout or bring their own reusable bag. 

Simple.  Whole Foods Market stopped using plastic bags years ago and switched to paper only, which they don’t even charge for, and people like me are getting used to bringing their own bags made from canvas, nylon or recycled reusable plastic.

This year South Korea will join dozens of other countries that have imposed bans or taxes on single-use plastic bags. Their effort will affect approximately 13,000 grocery stores by banning the bags except for wet produce or meat.  If you live in Kenya and violate their plastic bag ban, you could face four years in prison or a fine up to $39,000. 

Here is some shocking insight into the impact of our plastic bag habits: 

•  Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, requiring 12 million barrels of oil in the manufacturing process.

•  Single-use plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes.

•  The average American family takes home about 1,500 plastic bags a year.

•  Shoppers in the United States use an average of one single use plastic bag a day, while shoppers in Denmark use only four single-use plastic bags a year.

•  100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags every year.

•  Research shows there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans by 2050. 

Years ago I created a program for 6th graders call “I’ll Have the Plastic Fish Special, Please,” an environmental education program to teach kids about plastic, from cradle to grave.  I usually end my presentation by telling them about some studies from our gyres (vast plastic debris islands in our oceans) where scientists are finding micro-plastics in the bodies of seabirds, fish and marine mammals.  Hence the title of my program. 

When it comes to plastic waste moving into our environment, there is no happy ending.  It either gets incinerated where it creates highly toxic air pollution, winds up in landfills where it doesn’t degrade for hundreds of years, or gets dumped or washed into our oceans, lakes and rivers, where it presents a risk to all marine life. 

So, Nassau County, can we make this ban on single-use plastic bags a non-political call to action?  Democrats and Republicans alike want plastic-free beaches and oceans and a cleaner planet for their children and grandchildren. I know the American Chemistry Council representing the plastics industry tries to defeat every attempt to make our planet plastic-free (it’s called “product preservation”), but it’s about time we stop worrying about “the economy” suffering if we take actions to protect our planet.  

Frankly, banning fossil fuel-derived plastics will help us in many positive ways, and eventually, the industry will make new products that are renewable, compostable and sustainable. And a final thought — right now, producers of plastic bags aren’t taking any responsibility for the environmental impact of their product. Plastic bags are cheap to produce but very expensive to clean up. 

I recommend that Nassau enact a single-use plastic bag ban modeled on the one that was just passed in New Castle, a neighboring town to our north in Westchester.  It simply states that no retail establishment shall provide a single-use plastic carryout bag to a customer, instead of providing a reusable bag or recycled paper bag to a customer for a minimal fee.  

Wouldn’t it be nice to see our trees without torn plastic bag “flags”  adorning their branches? Let’s help clean up our little corner of this earth.  Maybe we’ll get the chance in 2019. 



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