In the last month there have been two very emotionally charged letters written by Jody Benson, a Sierra Club member, to the editor demanding a ban on plastic shopping bags in Los Alamos County. Understandably this topic is going to generate a lot of discussion because it concerns how people choose to shop and live their lives.
Before we ban plastic bags and allow needleless government intrusion into a private transaction, let’s look at some facts regarding plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are made of #2 (high-density polyethylene HDPE) or #4 (low-density polyethylene, LDPE), both of which are 100 percent recyclable through the “Bag-2-Bag” program Smith’s participates in.
Smith’s also recycles its own cardboard and other waste, thus not impacting the County’s solid waste system. Ninety percent of plastic shopping bags are reused in households. The most common reuse is to line trash cans, and to dispose of pet waste.
Recycling efforts are on the rise and increase every year. From 2006 to 2011 recovery of HDPE and LDPE increased 55 percent. As time passes public awareness of recycling has grown, in addition to this, access to recycling facilities is becoming more widespread and available to individuals and municipalities. Los Alamos County has a dynamic recycling program in place and is proactive in improving its efforts in recycling.
Plastic bags make up less than .5 percent of the municipal waste stream in this country. Look around your house and note all of the things that go into your trash can – both the green barrel and the blue barrel. A plastic shopping bag is one of the smallest things in the there.
Bans really do not solve the issue of litter, or reduce what goes into a landfill. Again, look around your house and take an inventory of what you are throwing away. Plastic bags are not the problem. Banning them is a “feel good fix” with little impact on the real issue of how to reuse and recycle plastics.
Where bans are in place, the use of alternative plastic bags rises. People, will and do, buy their own trash can liners and pet waste bags to replace the plastic bags they no longer get from the store. These replacement bags are heavier weight plastic and will end up in a landfill. It’s better to reuse the lighter weight bags from the store, and recycle them when they no longer are needed.
Plastic bags are more sanitary and help to prevent the spread of food borne illness. Unless you are washing your cloth bags after each use, you run the risk of cross contamination from things like salmonella and E.coli. If you leave your bags in the car, as most people do, bacteria grow even faster, and will make people even sicker. In cities where bag bans are in place there has been an increase in the reported cases of food borne illness, especially among grocery store employees.
In addition to these facts there is the issue of personal choice, which for me is the most important part of this debate. When I go into the store and shop, it is a private transaction between me and Smith’s. I do not want the government, at the behest of the Sierra Club, stepping in telling me how to carry home my groceries. What will the Sierra Club want to ban next? Will the organization ban plastic shampoo bottles or milk cartons? How about cereal boxes and margarine tubs? Where does it stop? Everything we use and consume has an impact. Instead of banning things, let’s be smarter about what we are using, and practice good stewardship of our resources.
As has been mentioned, plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable. If you’re not going to reuse them, drop them in the barrel at Smith’s. As individuals and communities look for solutions to solid waste, the market, through innovation, will provide the solutions. If we start banning things, there is no reason to innovate and to be proactive with how we deal with our garbage. We are not solving anything with a ban on plastic bags.
If you stand at the exit of Smith’s, you will also observe many people walking out with their own bags, which is great. We are already governing ourselves when it comes to using and reusing plastic bags. Why does the government need to solve a problem that does not exist? Why do some people feel the need to force others to adopt their lifestyle choices, too?
If an individual wants to use cloth bags, they should. If someone wants to use plastic bags, that should be an option as well. One of the best things about living in Los Alamos is that we are very happy to let each other live our lives as we please, free of guilt and judgment. There is very little pressure to conform to a certain way of life, or to keep up appearances here. We need to keep that civic mentality alive because it makes this town a nice place to live.
I have started a group called “Save the Bag: Los Alamos” on Facebook and a blog, found at http://savethebaglosalamos.blogspot.com/. My goal is to provide as much information to people, free of emotion and hyperbole, on the subject of plastic bags so that people of Los Alamos can make their own informed and reasonable decision on this issue. I hope that people will take the time to come and see what we have to say, and consider that banning plastic bags is not the solution to garbage in this town.