Lauren Stevens: Grappling with plastic

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With so much news to cope with in the last couple months, it could have slipped by you that in July Gov. Charlie Baker rescinded the ban on reusable bags. In other words, you can, once again, take your own bags grocery shopping. You might have to pack them yourself, though.

Shoppers are free to dig their reusable bags out of the broom closet. The ban on their use, announced in March, was to prevent bringing something to the store that might infect store employees with COVID-19. Stores are now also less restricted in the numbers of shopper who can be present at one time.

Science has shown that the infection is spread primarily through the air, rather than from fabrics or other objects. Still, you may be asked to pack the bag yourself rather than have the store's employees handle it.

The COVID-19 ban was a ban on a ban. Over the past several years, 139 Massachusetts towns and cities have banned single-use plastic bags. These include the Berkshire towns of Adams, Becket, Dalton, Great Barrington, Pittsfield and Williamstown. The plastic-bag ban once again applies in those communities.

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Meanwhile, the state Senate passed a statewide, single-use plastic-bag ban 36-4 in November 2019. The House may take up the bill this year. The bill provides for limited exceptions; the ban would not apply to plastic bags used to carry dry cleaning, certain food like produce and meats and prescription medications. The bill also mandates that customers would have to pay a 10-cent fee for recyclable or reusable bags.

With the advent of hydrofracking, natural gas, from which most plastic bags are made, has become cheap. Furthermore, the global glut of carbon fuels has forced the industry to swivel toward plastics as a market. The bags are inexpensive, lightweight, aerodynamic, waterproof and slow to biodegrade — the result being that they have become ubiquitous.

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Another reason plastic bags are so cheap is that those who use them don't pay the cost of disposing of them. Although supermarkets take them back, the bags are not accepted in most recycling programs. In fact, if they get into the recycling stream, they are likely to clog the automated machinery.

Most plastic bags placed in bins at stores are recycled into composite lumber or are reduced to pellets, which could be used to create new plastic bags. Most recycling boxes accept bags from stores other than the ones where they are placed.

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The Sierra Club reports that Massachusetts residents are estimated to use more than 2 billion bags per year (about a bag per person per day). The bags blow across supermarket parking lots, festoon our roadsides and mark the high-water line along our streams and rivers by getting caught in riparian trees.

The Sierra Club writes: "Some marine animals, such as turtles that eat jellyfish, mistake plastic bags for food. Once plastic gets lodged in the bodies of animals, it can cause them to suffocate or starve to death. As plastic bags fragment into smaller pieces, they become microplastics, which are ingested by a wide range of marine animals from oysters to whales. By displacing lower food sources, microplastics can enter the food chain, including our own. There is no systematic way to recover plastics once they enter lakes or oceans."

For sure, the petrochemical industry will fight all efforts to reduce this use of their products. Be strong. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens is a writer and an environmentalist.


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