The complicated scourge of plastic bags

Our town recently voted NOT to ban plastic bags as part of the check out experience. When I saw that this article was up for vote, my husband and I agreed that we should show up at the meeting. It had been too long since we attended a Town Meeting anyway.

With much of the earlier business dispatched, it was only the discussion and vote about this issue that remained. I knew that many Massachusetts towns had already passed this measure and that the town’s Board of Health and Sustainability Committee had also voted unanimously in support of it. I assumed that it would have a lot of popularity here as well.

This was not even the beginning of my misapprehensions. As the well moderated discussion about this began, I realized that I had  created an entirely different measure in my head. When I had cursorily read what was to be voted on, I didn’t see, but completely imagined that I had missed the part that outlined that this was not about replacing plastic with paper but about charging people a nominal fee if they did not bring their own bags. When I lived in England in 1980 there was a charge of a few pence to buy plastic check-out bags. We’re talking nearly 40 years ago! I’ve been waiting for this to take place here and thought we had arrived. I was even doubting what I was reading, certain that I was missing this essential aspect. At least I’m aware of the baggage I bring to the situation.

The respectful, cogent and compelling arguments against the proposed ban included the footprint that paper bags leave in order to be created, and the parallel issues with plastic regarding leaking into landfills. While I can agree that both types of bags have their pitfalls, I do believe that making the proposed change would lead to greater consciousness about not using either type in favor of reusable whenever possible. 

I’m sure that many people reuse or dispose of bags responsibly, but so many residents unthinkingly take a bag for a single item, or for two, or dozens of bags each week for a larger grocery shop. And do they recycle them or just toss them in the trash?

I had been all set to reassure doubters that people would donate reusable bags to those who felt they couldn’t afford them, but this is obviously for another time. As I cycled around town this morning, considering how to approach this topic, a small black plastic bag flew out of a passing car and nearly into my face. Clearly the issue is ripe. It is just not yet fully developed.

There are so many bags out there: shoulder bags, hand bags, Dad bags (or is it Bagdad?), bags under the eyes, small French bags (called baguettes), surely we do not need to keep creating more? Surely there must be a way to retard the explosion of either kind of bag, perhaps not for every purchase but at least for most, but what will it take? Some stores reward those who tote reusable bags by deducting five cents per bag. I’m still in favor of paying if I have forgotten mine.

It will take a massive concerted effort to organize. It will take time. My hope is still for a future that holds less waste whenever we can choose it. And at the next town vote I will certainly read all the print of what is proposed before leaping to the conclusion that the result is in the bag.


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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.