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Cleaning the Streams by Bagging Bags
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by Meredith Sweet | 2011

Maryland’s 90-day legislative session is a busy time in Annapolis. From mid-January to mid-April, the 47 senators and 141 delegates who form our General Assembly will sponsor, deliberate, debate, and vote on more than 2,300 bills, including the state’s annual budget. On February 4, 2011, one such bill, the “Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011,” had its first reading before its respective committees to become Senate Bill 602 and House Bill 1034. Affectionately known by advocates as the “bag bill,” it is a logical follow-on to DC’s hugely successful 5-cent “bag law” (officially known as The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act).

Cleaning the Streams by Bagging Bags

 

By Meredith Sweet—Maryland’s 90-day legislative session is a busy time in Annapolis.  From mid-January to mid-April, the 47 senators and 141 delegates who form our General Assembly will sponsor, deliberate, debate, and vote on more than 2,300 bills, including the state’s annual budget. On February 4,2011, one such bill, the “Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011,” had its first reading before its respective committees to become Senate Bill 602 and House Bill 1034. Affectionately known by advocates as the “bag bill,” it is a logical follow-on to DC’s hugely successful 5-cent “bag law” (officially known as The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act).

DC’s approach of charging a bag fee in lieu of an outright ban was the first of its kind in the United States. Under the banner “Skip the Bag, Save the River,” it has been a strong motivator for shoppers to switch from single-use plastic to reusable bags.  It is also a win-win for the Anacostia River by reducing a source of permanent pollution while providing a new source of revenue for clean-up efforts. 

With every 5 cents a business charges customers for plastic, up to 2 cents goes to the business and the remainder to the Anacostia River Protection Fund.  Since taking effect on January 1, 2010, the law has netted $2 million in revenue and lowered plastic-bag usage from about 270 million bags in 2009 to around 55 million—an impressive decrease of 80 percent. Interestingly enough, DC officials see the revenue shortfall (predictions placed it at $3.5 million) as a sign of victory—the program is working better than expected.

The resounding success of DC’s bag law has not gone unnoticed. According to the Trash Free Maryland Alliance website (www.trashfreemaryland.org/), Virginia and Connecticut have joined Maryland in considering implementing a bag fee, while Oregon is looking at modifying and expanding Portland’s pre-existing, city-wide ban to a state-wide initiative. Hawaii is also in the mix this year, considering a variety of bills covering ban, fee, and biodegradable bag options.  California has hodge-podge, literally town-by-town, legislation reflecting the heated bag-ban debate that followed San Francisco’s municipal bag ban in 2007.

Why is there this brouhaha over plastic bags?  To help answer that question, let’s consider the life cycle of a typical bag from its conception to its final resting place. 

 

Anatomy of a Plastic Bag

Most plastic bags we use come from a substance called polyethylene or PE. This large molecule is composed of repeated units of smaller ethylene molecules (or monomers) bonded together in long, pliable polymer chains. Ethylene itself is derived from a process called stream cracking, where large hydrocarbon molecules are broken down into monomers. It is a very energy-intensive process, requiring temperatures between 750 and 950 ºC. Traditional sources or “feedstock” of hydrocarbons are petroleum or propane, and almost 80 percent of PE manufactured in our country comes from natural gas.

Polyethylene is extremely pliable, and, since its discovery in the 1930s, it has become the most widely used form of plastic. There are at least 10 categories of PE based upon the molecular properties of the plastic used in the final product. Here are the most prevalent of these:

·         High-density PE (HDPE) (recycling symbol number 2) uses include plastic grocery bags; containers such as milk jugs and detergent bottles; plastic lumber, outdoor furniture and piping; and children’s toys.

·         Low-density PE LDPE (recycling symbol number 4) uses include­ f­ood wrap; six-pack rings; computer hardware; and rigid plastics such as food trays.

·         Linear low-density PE (LLDPE) (no recycling symbol) uses include glossy carrier bags; plastic film wrap; and sheeting.

 

Once made and sold in its myriad of forms, PE pervades all aspects of our lives, especially in its ubiquitous form, the single-use carrier bag.  It is estimated that between 81 and 100 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the United States alone. In 2007, more than 830 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled. But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, that was a mere 12 percent of the total used.  The Trash Free Maryland Alliance places this figure at a lower (and advocates believe more accurate) 5 percent. 

The remainder ends up in our landfills; on our roadsides; tangled up in trees; floating in waterways; on our beaches; and in huge, oceanic “garbage patches.” And here they rest arguably for all eternity. Sounds dramatic? Unfortunately, it is also true. 

Standard plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they actually photodegrade. When exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, PE’s polymer chains become brittle and crack. This suggests that bags outside the cover of landfills will eventually fragment into microscopic granules.  However, based on present data, scientists cannot be sure how long this process will take, and there’s much speculation that decomposition rates will not be measured in decades but in centuries.

 

What Can We Do?

Actually, there’s quite a lot each of us can do to significantly reduce the amount of plastic in our environment. It’s all about revisiting those three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. 

 

Reduce Your Usage

Avoiding outright the use of plastic bags has the most immediate, direct, and positive effect on the environment. Apart from being a semi-permanent form of pollution, single-use bags are not environmentally friendly for other reasons. The manufacturing of PE is a high-energy process that requires large amounts of electricity, primarily from coal-fired power plants. The raw materials, petroleum and natural gas, are also both non-renewable energy sources. 

Changing daily habits when transitioning from PE-based products to reusable alternatives can be difficult at first. Many shoppers find themselves returning to their cars again and again for their grocery bags until the habit sticks. Ultimately, perseverance and patience win over, and converts often find using fewer sturdy bags better than many flimsy plastic bags.

Do the research, become aware of what types of bags are PE-based, and look for viable, reusable options that suit you. For example, if you save money by buying food in bulk and break it down for freezing, switch to tempered glass or durable plastic containers that are freezer- grade, instead of zippered freezer bags. Use small, reusable storage containers rather than sandwich bags for packed lunches. When going out to eat, take a quart-sized container with you. Yes, it sounds silly, but it saves taking leftovers home in the Styrofoam box and plastic carrier bag that restaurants provide.

 

Reuse Plastic Bags

Though not nearly as effective as reducing or recycling, this is by far the most widely-used approach. More than 90 percent of us reuse our plastic bags at least once for things like wastebasket liners, packing material, lunch totes, and picking up pet waste. If you already have a stash of bags that cannot be recycled, have some fun and be creative. Turn them into
“recycle art” or cut large, colorful ones into aprons for the July 4
th barbeque.

 

Recycle!

Most of us know that almost all grocery stores and many retailers have bins for recycling plastic grocery bags. However, not everyone knows they also accept the following plastic items:

·         Newspaper bags

·         Dry cleaning bags

·         Bread bags

·         Produce bags

·         Wrap for toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, furniture and electronics

·         Retail bags (hard plastic and string handles removed)

·         Food storage bags (clean and dry), such as Ziploc® bags

·         Cereal box liners (If it tears like paper, do not include.)

·         Tyvek® (no glue, labels, other material)

·         Diaper packaging

·         Shipping envelopes (Do not include bubble wrap, and be sure to remove labels.)

·         Case wrap (e.g., snacks, water bottles)

·         All clean, dry bags labeled with a 2 or 4

 

It is important not to introduce contaminants into the recycling stream, and there are still several items that are not accepted, including cling or food wrap, packaging for frozen or prepackaged food, bio-based or compostable bags, and plastic that has paint or excessive glue on its surface. 

More information on recycling is available at  two great web-based resources, www.PlasticBagRecycling.org and www.Earth911.com.  

In the long term, reducing your reliance on plastic is the most effective plan of action.  While recycling does immediately remove plastic bags from the trash stream, it is not always a perfect solution and can have unforeseen problems of its own. 

According to the American Chemistry Council’s 2008 “plastic film” report, 57 percent of our collected plastic waste was sent oversees for processing. With the recent world-wide economic downturn, many of these recyclers have gone out of business, making it uncertain how much of what is being exported is actually getting recycled.

 

Tell Your Elected Officials You Support the Bag Bill

Both senate and house versions of the bill are scheduled in early March for their second reading before respective committees. If approved, the Maryland bag bill will go forward for its third and final reading, the floor vote. This is an excellent time to show your support, which you can do in two ways:

·         The easiest way is to sign the online petition at one of the following websites: Sierra Club Maryland Chapter (http://maryland.sierraclub.org/) or Trash Free Maryland Alliance (http://www.trashfreemaryland.org/).

·         You also may send an email to your senator and delegates directly. Elected officials are always interested in hearing from constituents. For the names and contact information for your elected officials, go to http://mdelect.net/electedofficials/.                                                      n

 

Meredith Sweet is the chair of the Southern Maryland Group.

 

 

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