PRESS EDITORIAL: The rise and inevitable fall of plastic bags

Single-use plastic bags will one day be as unacceptable—and likely as illegal—as smoking in indoor public spaces and driving a car without using a seat belt.

Regulation of the bags that the Environmental Protection Agency says are discarded at the rate of more than 85 billion per year in the United States is inevitable because the huge volume of indestructible plastic they represent is a well-documented and fast growing threat to the environment that will have to be dealt with.

The bags are already banned in a number of countries and U.S. cities and in the entire state of California. 

The Wisconsin Legislature took action on single-use plastic bags two years ago, but not to curtail their use. On the contrary, the lawmakers enacted a state statute that prohibits local governments from any form of regulation of the bags.

The legislators were certainly not responding to constituents appealing for protection of their right to receive throwaway plastic bags from retailers for their purchases. 

Rather, the state senators and representatives who voted to approve this theft of power from local governments, as well as the governor who signed the law, were following a directive from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization that represents, among other special interests, plastic manufacturers and petroleum companies that are enriched by the ubiquity of the plastic bags and has scripted much of the agenda followed by the Wisconsin Legislature in recent years.

Despite their flimsy nature, plastic bags survive virtually forever in landfills. But it is the bags that are not in landfills that threaten the environment. The United Nations Environmental Program reported that eight million tons of plastic, much of it in the form of single-use bags, is deposited in the world’s oceans every year. The plastic pollution estimated to be already in the oceans comes to 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean. The World Economic Forum predicted that if current trends continue there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. 

The Great Lakes, as well as the Midwest’s inland lakes, waterways and natural areas, are as vulnerable as the oceans to pollution by plastic, to the detriment of fish, birds and other wildlife and even the drinking water consumed by humans, which has been found to contain microscopic bits of plastic.

Plastic bags, which are made from byproducts of oil refining, damage the environment even before they are used and discarded. The manufacture of plastic adds millions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Plastic bags are freely given by stores, but they are not free. The cost of the bags is added to the cost of food and other products that are carried from stores in plastic. This has the ironic effect of making shoppers who dutifully pack their groceries in reusable bags pay to subsidize the throwaway plastic bags.

 The experience of efforts to regulate single-use plastic bags has shown that people adapt readily and reusable bags quickly become the norm. In Ireland, which discourages bag use with a 15 euro cent fee on each bag, 90% of shoppers use reusable bags.

American cities that have regulated throwaway bags, including Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Austin, Texas, have seen similar acceptance of life with less plastic.

The 39 million residents of the most populous state in the union, California, are getting along just fine without single-use plastic bags, which are banned by a law endorsed by voters in a referendum.

 The movement to reduce the environmental damage done by the overuse of throwaway plastic bags has momentum and is progressing across the U.S. and the globe. Unfortunately, Wisconsin will be bringing up the rear.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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