The Universal Notebook: The future is in the bag

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 1

Back in 1980, Carolyn and I spent several months in England. Among the things that impressed me most were the local ales, the rail service, the fish and chips, and the fact that stores did not automatically give you a bag for your purchase. You were expected to bring your own.

Thirty-six years later, Maine and America are slowly, town by town, coming to the realization that it makes a lot of environmental and economic sense to bring your own bag when you go shopping. Close to 200 communities nationwide have enacted some form of bag ordinance. California enacted a statewide ban on plastic bags, but the ban is on hold until a November 2016 referendum.

In Maine, Portland began mandating a five-cent-per-bag fee for plastic and paper bags in April, 2015, as well as a ban on foam packing. South Portland will begin charging five cents per bag on March 1. In November, 2015, York residents passed a ban on single-use plastic bags. Freeport, which banned foam containers way back in 1989 at the behest of high school students, is studying a bag ban. And Falmouth will start charging a five cent fee for plastic and paper bags starting April 1.

Last week I had coffee with Marcia Harrington, Averil Fessenden and Jamie Ecker of Bring Your Own Bag-Midcoast, the local group promoting a bag ordinance and foam ban in Brunswick and Topsham. Brunswick is studying the matters and Topsham is taking up the issue at a Board of Selectmen meeting this week.

What BYOB-Midcoast is proposing is “a five-cent fee on single-use, carry-out plastic and paper bags at stores with greater than 2 percent food sales” – meaning mostly grocery stories, pharmacies and convenience stores – and a ban on foam containers for food and beverages. The fee would not apply to produce bags and garbage bags.

Why discourage the use of plastic bags?

“Plastic bags cause a huge problem for recycling centers,” explained Jaime Ecker, who is BYOB-Midcoast’s pro by virtue of being the director of organic waste recycling for Waste Management. “There is no easy way to sort them and they get caught in the equipment.”

The larger issue, of course, is plastic in the environment, particularly the marine environment. According to the Marine Environment Research Institute, 99 percent of Maine seawater now contains microplastics, such that plastics turn up in lobsters and shellfish.

Paper bags are a target because they use even more energy to produce than plastic bags. And the ultimate strategy is to change consumer behavior by conditioning people to bring their own bags.

The main objection BYOB-Midcoast has run into from citizens is the mistaken notion that a five-cent fee is a new tax imposed by a nanny state government. That’s ridiculous. The cost of “free” bags is already embedded in retail prices and we don’t pay anywhere near the true cost of single-use bags, either economically or environmentally. The five cents does not go to the state or local government, it goes to the store owner.

The basic idea is that a nickel a bag will make consumers more aware of the waste involved in single-use packaging, just as a five-cent deposit habituated consumers to recycle bottles and cans, and pay-per-bag trash programs make people more cognizant of our throw-away lifestyles and recycle more.

I saw a sign at a local business not long ago pledging never to charge for bags. Not sure what the thinking was there. Seems to me you’d alienate more customers by breaking the law (if it is enacted) and not being environmentally responsible. Progressive businesses are eliminating them on their own. Ikea, for instance, hasn’t given customers paper or plastic bags since 2008. You either buy a blue reusable Ikea bag for 79 cents, bring your own or do without. Even Wal-Mart Canada started charging for plastic bags just last week.

Remember the “Good Ol’ Days,” when we used to take our trash to the dump, back the car up to a smoking open landfill and just throw our refuse out on the ground? Remember when the roadsides were littered with cans and bottles and lined with unsightly billboards? When raw sewage went straight into the ocean? When mills flushed toxins into the rivers? When it was normal to smoke in restaurants, college classrooms, even airplanes? When cars didn’t have seatbelts?

Well, thank heaven the Good Ol’ Days are over. It’s the 21st century and it’s high time for people to start behaving responsibly as consumers. My only question about a reusable bag ordinance is, if you don’t bring your own bag when you go grocery shopping, why not?

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

1