For years, the Chartocks have collected plastic grocery store bags and kept them in a bag on the knob of our dishwasher. We can use one of those bags to take kitchen waste to the garbage bin outside rather than putting garbage in the trash compactor or keeping it inside and risking a smelly kitchen. We also use our plastic bags to pick up dog poop, including the huge pile that was left in our driveway by some miscreant animal and its owner. I’ll occasionally use one of the plastic bags to carry papers I need to bring to work. The bags have a thousand uses.
The town of Great Barrington in its infinite wisdom has now decided, by vote of the annual town meeting, to ban plastic bags. The theory is that plastic bags are not easily biodegradable and we are running out of places to put our garbage. Get rid of the plastic bags and you can help the environment. You really can’t argue with the logic. Even if we are just talking about symbolism, that’s OK. Many of our residents are now second-homers from New York, where they have been dealing with trash issues for years.
Great Barrington is a land of people who treasure the environment. I suspect, but can’t prove, that we have more Prius owners than anywhere else, even if the second car in the garage is a Mercedes. When you ask people to do the right thing concerning the environment there will be sacrifices. It sometimes takes extra money and extra effort but when you think about the increasingly terrible condition in which we have left Mother Earth, it’s worth it. Every time we do the right thing we help the total effort, even if it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle.
No such symbolic effort is easy. When Michael Bloomberg tried to put people on bikes instead of in cars, a lot of people objected. When Massachusetts tried to build wind farms in an effort to use less fossil fuel and help with our energy consumption, some saw it as a moral affront to the birds and to their own mental health. When Great Barrington asks its residents to give up their plastic bags, some people will complain.
I stop at the West Stockbridge Market every day and have my purchases packed in a plastic bag. I will just have to do better. I’ll have to bring one of my reusable bags into the store, which means remembering to occasionally wash the bags so they are clean.
It hasn’t been easy to get the merchants and residents of Great Barrington to give up their plastic bags. The cut-off date on plastic bags has already been postponed twice in order to give store owners a chance to get ready. Not everyone will remember to bring their reusable bags so the stores will have to keep paper bags on hand. They, too, will be costly to the environment and entail cutting down more trees.
Town meetings are funny things. Even if people don’t want to give up their plastic bags, they will still find it very hard to vote no on the issue so sometimes the outcomes of votes are more of a social function than a reflection of what the people really want.
States in the midwest burn a lot of coal that then comes straight our way in the form of acid rain. Eastern states are suing to get them to stop. India, China and other emerging economies say that we polluted for years and now it’s their turn. Some merchants in Great Barrington will inevitably lose some business because people may want their plastic bags. That would be too bad. Finally, the next time the United States has a chance to vote for something like the Kyoto environmental treaty, they might want to vote yes instead of no.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.