The Universal Notebook: The future is in the bag

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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.

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  • Charles Martel

    Great idea (Moon)Beem, emulate Europe as if Europeans are so vastly superior to us dimwitted Americans. Well, how smart was it for them to align themselves with the Arabs after the oil embargo in 1973? Looks like the “chickens are coming home to roost” with the current manufactured refugee crisis. Have you been to the wondrous major capitals lately? Graffiti and trash everywhere and you’re focused on plastic bags?

    • AverageJoe99

      Yeah, make America great again. Maybe you can bring back slavery and segregation while you’re at it. And deny the right to vote to women, too.

      • Charles Martel

        Trump is right on stopping Muslims from coming into the country until we can a handle on the UN and OIC dictating who comes here. I’m guessing you don’t know much about Sharia law or the fact that the Trans-Saharan Islamic slave trade was far more barbaric and dwarfed in numbers the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.. Also, Muslims treat women as second-class citizens but you’re an average Joe, not Trump.

        • EABeem

          Unless, of course, you expect Muslim countries to help fight ISIS and Muslim-American communities to be the front line of defense against Islamic extremists.

          • Charles Martel

            WTF does that mean? Shut up, retire and go away!

          • EABeem

            It means that most reasonable people understand that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims has already served as a recruitment tool for terrorists, that it would alienate Muslim countries that are our allies in fighting terrorism and it would alienate Muslim-Americans who are an important source of intelligence about radicals in this country. Not sure why you find it necessary to attack Muslims in a column that is about reducing plastic refuse.

          • Charles Martel

            My comment was in response AverageJoe99’s insipid comment above. Trump is not the problem with recruiting terrorists. It’s Sharia law. The apologist in the WH is an enabler as well.

          • EABeem

            Then I guess you replied to the wrong comment.

        • yathink2011

          Does Donald Trump use plastic shopping bags? How did he get mentioned?

    • Just Sayin’

      Wow. I think you need to remember to take your medication or something, as nothing you’ve written here references anything in the original article.

      Reality is your friend. Try to find your way back to it.

  • Chew H Bird

    The nickel per bag fee going to the stores is simple bribery to get the stores to go along with the plan. Brunswick requires plastic bags for garbage pickup that contain far more plastic real estate than the flimsy bags distributed for carrying out purchases. That we now pay for special low quality garbage bags is a fee on top of th town collecting tax revenue.

    All of this bag fee “stuff”, be it flimsy supermarket bags or the expensive pay per bag scheme for garbage is basically feel good legislation. If we truly cared about the environment we would regulate product packaging instead of directly impacting consumers by enticing them to utilize filthy shopping bags that contaminate food checkout belts.

    We have real issues that need correcting like bringing more jobs to Maine, retaining our college educated youth, reducing the personal and corporate tax burdens, and putting able bodied citizens to work.

    • EABeem

      And therefore we should not be concerned about the environment? Was the bottle bill just a feel-good nuisance, too? In Maine, the environment IS the economy. Whatever we can do to preserve it, we should do. Yes, we should make consumers pay the full cost of a product from packaging to disposal, but that won’t happen, so we have to take baby steps. Yes, the plastic trash bags are an issue, but they don’t seem to create the mess that grocery bags do. For that matter, Brunswick is one of a handful of communities in Maine that still has a landfill. Might start there.

      • Aliyah33

        Didn’t Brunswick also have a landfill issue? Something along the lines it didn’t meet EPA, or DEP requirements?

    • Aliyah33

      Some really good points, especially product packaging. There’s a web article/video about a German entrepreneur who found a way to offer bulk goods people could dispense into their own containers, but I’m not sure how sanitary it is…store looks impeccably clean, though. We got used to the green Shaws shopping bags, and regularly washed them…but then read about the harmful chemicals (sometimes lead) used in manufacturing some of these shopping bags (from China, I believe).,, Too bad towns don’t pick up these plastic bags (not recyclable), or have several drop off bins.

      • Chew H Bird

        Hannaford recycles the small plastic bags free. If Hannaford can do it why can’t the town?

        • Aliyah33

          It’d be a good start if Brunswick’s so keen on sending out a message of being one of Maine’s most environmentally aware towns. Changing habits are difficult for the majority, seems there’d be more success if done incrementally. I understand it costs more to produce brown paper bags, but we always reused them, even for covering books.

          • Chew H Bird

            However, by the time the brown paper bags make it to the supermarket, the amount of fuel and pollution required to produce the bags, plus their comparatively heavy weight (transportation), makes them actually less “green” than the plastic which comes from recycled materials…

          • Aliyah33

            Perhaps another approach will help people become more receptive to BYOB… stores can charge customers 5 cents/single use bag, or if a customer brings their own bags they should receive 5 cents/bag from the store.

          • Chew H Bird

            Or, if the fee is managed as a deposit (like on bottles), customers can return bags for recycle (Shaws and Hannaford do this) and get their nickel back?

          • Aliyah33

            One of the problems with the bottle deposit, though, is the fraud; some have brought in cans and bottles from other States which don’t recycle.

            An immediate loss or gain at checkout for the bags may help change habits more quickly. There’s opportunity for tangible reward for BYOB, instead of punishment for using a bag that was previously perceived as free.

            I have to give credit for this idea to the Bath Police Department for giving out rewards at one time – compare that to Brunswick Police Department setting up road blocks to check if people were in compliance with seat belt laws, etc. Two totally different methods to gain compliance. Most will respond to positive reinforcement.

            http://bangordailynews.com/2011/02/11/business/alleged-scam-spurs-criticism-of-bottle-bill/

  • Queenie42

    Man seems to be the only animal that soils the nest where they eat. Every piece of material that poisons our environment is left in waterways, the ocean, landfills, etc. This doesn’t have to be. Each of us, in our own way can come up with solutions to do some housecleaning, saving billions of dollars in the future.
    Hubby and I exchanged all our wasteful incandescent lighting in our house with LED bulbs for instance. Other people have weatherized their homes. Some have gotten rid of their second vehicle.
    If we can clean up the oceans by eliminating the amount of plastic that is ingested by sea life then it seems like a no-brainer to do so. That stuff causes cancer for us further up the food chain. We get too much poison in the food we eat as it is.
    The people in England would never have been able to survive during the Blitz and the subsequent rationing if there were as many cry-babies and nay-sayers as I have read about in dealing with these plastic bags. They had a can do spirit that would put most of us to shame. They stood in line for everything and used their own bags. They were called string bags. They looked sort of like an onion bag but with a larger mesh. I have read many books about the way they lived back during those war years and have never come across any sickness that was attributed to those bags. They even had to bring their own wrapping paper, if they had any, to wrap a piece of cheese, or a bit of butter, if there was any. And they were rationed on almost everything, so those bags never got too full. They gave up a lot and won the war.
    And we can do it, too! How about someone inventing a machine that would vacuum the plastic bags and compact them to be used for building blocks with a coat of adobe or some other weather-proof outer layer. Think of the trees we could save that remove the CO2 from the air and give us back oxygen.
    We are at a crossroads. We can all join the battle for a better tomorrow for our children and their children or we can whine and drag our feet until it is too late. Getting rid of plastic in our environment is a positive step in the right direction. Let’s hear some more positive ideas instead of throwing cold water on those that are looking ahead to help our planet and all that live on it.

    • Chew H Bird

      A positive idea would be instead of bribing the stores and restaurants to go along with pay per bag programs, would be to have those fees dedicated to cleaning up the environment. It would be less hypocritical if Brunswick actually stepped up and did away with the high priced plastic trash bags required to dispose of garbage in Brunswick.

      I drive a slow imported hybrid vehicle to save on fuel and save the real car for pleasure in warm weather (pop a wheelie type of performance). The bottom line is the only long term solution with minimal costs and maximum benefit is voluntarily reducing our population. Maybe we should give tax breaks to those who do not have children and tax those with kids at a higher rate?

      • Queenie42

        Reducing population is, of course, the ultimate solution. I agree. But it would have to be done worldwide. Maybe Mother Nature will come up with her own plan if we don’t?

  • yathink2011

    It makes no sense to ban the bags you carry stuff home in, when you take a look at the packaging of the stuff you put in the bag. But it makes people feel good. Walk down the aisles of the grocery store someday and look at the packaging and count how many of them are worse that the bags they get carried home in. And then feel good. Ever reuse a Lays Potato Chip bag a second or third time?

  • Chris_Christine

    I want a ban on unsolicited junk mail. How much energy does it take to print, transport, and deliver all that WASTE? Just to be thrown away (more energy and transport costs) or recycled (still using energy to do so) or tossed in my woodstove and burnt.

    It’s far past time to stop the tons and tons of wasteful crap marketing mail we get.

    • EABeem

      Good idea, but you’d probably run into some constitutional problem having to do with free speech.

  • Scott Harriman

    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.

    Yet bottles and cans have begun to litter the roadsides again because the bottle deposit has never been updated to reflect inflation.

    In 1976, 5 cents was worth 21 cents in today’s money.