Thursday, May 1, 2014

Massachusetts Sierra Club: Letter to Council re Plastic Bag Ban

The Council received this letter from the Massachusetts Sierra Club:

Massachusetts Sierra Club
10 Milk Street, Suite 417
Boston MA 02108-4600

April 30, 2014

City Council President Thomas F. O’Brien
and Newburyport City Council Members
Newburyport City Hall
60 Pleasant Street
Newburyport, Massachusetts 01950

Re: “Good Intentions Aren’t Enough” but Action Is

Dear Council President O’Brien and Honorable Members of the City Council,

In the debate concerning plastic bags, there have been many diverse and
sometimes extreme opinions. One of these opinions, the theme of which was
“Good intentions aren’t enough,” was submitted as an open letter to the city
council. The author claims to support “reduction of single use items” and “Reduce,
Reuse, Recycle.” I am pleased to find that we do agree on the fact that “reduction
of single use items is something we should strive to achieve” and that “Reduce,
Reuse, Recycle” needs to be taken to heart.”

However, after that, it appears that the author is misinformed. It has been proven
that a reduction of plastic bags will have a significant positive impact on our
environment and better our quality of life. The United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating
in every square mile of ocean. According to the EPA,” Marine debris impacts the
environment, economy, and human health and safety.” Due to the aerodynamic
nature of plastic bags, a large percentage of this debris is derived from plastic bags.

I’ve noted the author’s reference to David Laist’s study on marine animals with
interest. On the surface, the statement does not appear to be agreement with the
EPA, who further state, “whales and sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for
squid... Moreover, a study of 38 green turtles found that 61 percent had ingested
some form of marine debris including plastic bags, cloth, and rope or string.”
“Seabirds, sea turtles, fish, and marine mammals often ingest marine debris that
they mistake for food. Ingesting marine debris can seriously harm marine life”
because “Ingestion can lead to starvation or malnutrition.”

Another study determined that “up to 10% of plastics produced end up in the oceans, where they
may persist and accumulate.” This validates the fact that a significant percent of
marine debris is plastic. And most importantly, Mr. Laist in both his published
writings and direct communications disclaims the quotes that the author
attributed to him. Mr. Laist has been outspoken in his writings of the dangers that
plastic bags pose. In his article, Overview of the Biological Effects of Lost and
Discarded Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment, he is quite clear that the
proliferation of discarded plastics represent a serious long lasting threat to many
types of marine mammals, fish, birds, turtles, and all other marine life.

While plastic bags are heralded as economical and convenient, in the U.S. alone
BILLIONS of plastic bags end up yearly as litter, causing a visible blight and a
irreversible toxic danger. Plastic bags are so aerodynamic and easily transported by
wind and water, that even when properly disposed of, they often blow away and
become litter. Plastic bags are the third largest form of litter from land-based
sources found on US coasts. According to numerous studies, plastic pollution
litters our coast from Crane’s Beach to Cape Cod National Seashore, to the South
Coast.

Regarding the question of whether it is the “improper discarding” rather than the
“production and use” of plastic bags that is the problem, many locations and
opportunities are provided for recycling of these bags. The assumption that
providing more opportunities to recycle will resolve the issue is false. Due to the
low value of plastic bags, only 5.2% of our plastic bags are recycled.6 But even if the
recycling rate were doubled, tripled, or more the end result would still have an
unacceptable negative impact.

Certainly, a reduction in the use of thin film plastic bags will be accompanied by
an increase in the use of cloth bags as well as reusable plastic and paper bags.
Cloth bags can be reused hundreds of times and are easy to wash. Concerns about
public health are overblown. In fact, there is only one documented incident where
consumer health was affected by food-borne bacteria resulting from being
transported in a reusable bag. The report makes it clear that the incident would
have been easily avoided by following the most basic food handling techniques,
ands that the bag was not the culprit. Even that claim is non-applicable to the
proposed ordinance. Under proposal in Newburyport, plastic bags in the produce
and meats department will still be provided for groceries; only carry-out bags
would be eliminated.

While paper bags may not be the optimal solution for shopping, the EPA indicates
that paper and paperboard were recycled at a rate of 65% in 2008.There are no
figures for paper bags alone, but this is more than thirteen times the rate of
recycling of plastic bags making this an environmental choice.

The economic fears that opponents play on are also unfounded. For over 20 years,
Nantucket has upheld a ban to counter the effects of plastic bags on its
communities and other towns are following suit. None of these communities has
experienced negative economic consequences. Indeed, Brookline, Manchester by
the Sea, Great Barrington and Nantucket are all thriving communities.

Plastics take hundreds of years to break down at sea and most types never truly
biodegrade. Plastic bag litter is a serious problem and poses a threat to our
environment, but there is an easy solution. Passing a plastic bag ordinance will
help save countless endangered species, reduce pollution, and diminish litter that
inundates our oceans, landfills, and streets. The plastic bag issue is far clearer than
opponents of this ordinance would have you believe, I conclude that while “Good
intentions aren’t good enough,” action is. It’s time for Newburyport to pass an
ordinance banning plastic bags.

Sincerely

Phillip Sego
Environmental Advocate
Massachusetts Sierra Club

2 comments:

Joe DiBiase said...

Ed - It's curious to me that, in what I believe is a response to a letter that I submitted to the City Council, Mr. Sego completely ignores the other environmental issues that I brought to the Council's attention. In brief, the manufacture and transportation of alternative bags require the use of more fresh water, fossil fuels, pesticides, and insecticides. This has direct, but less observable impact on climate change, for instance. Recently, I've learned that a very effective insecticide that is favored for use in the cultivation of cotton, from which many reusable bags are manufactured, has been linked to the recent sudden decline in honeybee populations.

I truly believe that the untintended consequences of a ban on plastic bags are not clearly understood. Let's not follow others, who I believe have good intentions, but could be doing more harm than good.

Joe DiBiase said...

Ed - It's curious to me that, in what I believe is a response to a letter that I submitted to the City Council, Mr. Sego completely ignores the other environmental issues that I brought to the Council's attention. In brief, the manufacture and transportation of alternative bags require the use of more fresh water, fossil fuels, pesticides, and insecticides. This has direct, but less observable impact on climate change, for instance. Recently, I've learned that a very effective insecticide that is favored for use in the cultivation of cotton, from which many reusable bags are manufactured, has been linked to the recent sudden decline in honeybee populations.

I truly believe that the untintended consequences of a ban on plastic bags are not clearly understood. Let's not follow others, who I believe have good intentions, but could be doing more harm than good.