It’s time to bag the plastic


We’ve all used them. If you are anything like me, you might have an unruly kitchen drawer, frustrating all attempts at properly closing, from which glimpses of plastic handles protrude. Or maybe it’s a mountain of balled plastic in the corner of a pantry shelf, threatening to avalanche across your dry goods. The carryout plastic bag was not even available until the 1970s, and only widespread by the 80s, but in that short time it has made an assertive move into the fabric of consumer culture. Today, the average American uses 500 single-use bags a year.

In my house, Bag Mountain and the Obstinate Drawer are accepted (if occasionally annoying) members of the family because the bags are undeniably handy. Without them, I’d be without a lifetime supply of free trash can liners; worse, I’d have to find a new solution for getting wet bathing suits home. But their proliferation everywhere has become a problem, and the convenience of the free bags is not worth the excess and waste. For every bag that is carefully reused as a bicycle seat rain-shield, there are thousands that make their way into our natural environment.

The Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) is proposing to eliminate the single-use, disposable plastic bag on Martha’s Vineyard. We are targeting these bags because very few are re-used, and they are unsuitable for recycling. Our local waste haulers (Bruno’s and the MV refuse district) do not accept them in their recycling streams. While some major supermarket chains do take them back, less than three percent are returned by consumers, and much of that collected material is not actually recycled. (To recycle one ton of bags costs about $4,000; the resulting product can be sold for around $32.) The primary purpose of supermarket recycling programs is some combination of legitimate litter management and savvy public relations.

The invention of the disposable plastic bag was a feat of chemical engineering: they are amazingly light, able to carry many times their own weight, and so, so very cheap to manufacture. But this very lightness makes them a nightmare for waste management. They catch easily in the wind, blowing out of trash cans, trucks, and landfills, coming to rest in our oceans and trees. And with cheapness comes abundance: nationwide, one of the most common types of trash found on the coastline is plastic bags. Here on our relatively pristine Island, plastic bags commonly adorn osprey nests (and occasionally their necks). They are so common we mostly stop noticing them. But since I began researching this issue I have collected and photographed the bags from the Gay Head cliffs to Edgartown Harbor — with many schoolyards, soccer fields, beaches, and roadsides in between.  

But as unpleasant as they may be when strewn about the beach and dunes, the bags truly wreak havoc once they enter the ocean. They kill fish, turtles, and marine mammals, and photo-degrade into tiny particles called microplastics that travel up the food chain. (I will assume that low-density polyethylene was not what you ordered with your pan-seared tuna.) As Islanders, we derive so much from the ocean: we eat from it and play on it, and many of us, at least in part, count on it for our livelihood. I believe we have a duty to be at the forefront of protection for this powerful but fragile body that supports and defines us.

There is also a financial cost to the abundance of these bags, and not just in the lost tourism value when bags float through someone’s beach day or sunset picnic. The cost for handling a ton of recycling has now surpassed that of a ton of trash, a potential crisis for community recycling programs. The number one contributor to the cost increase due to contamination of the recycling stream is plastic bags. The bags also cost us when we pay our town workers to pick them up.

There are hundreds of communities in the U.S. that have already passed ordinances banning these bags. Just last year Falmouth became the 11th town in Massachusetts to pass a bag ban, and many more, including Truro and Chatham, are working on it. We are hardly revolutionary on this one, I’m afraid; Nantucket did it 25 years ago.

What those existing ordinances tell us is that the bans work. In every community, concerns are raised about inconvenience to shoppers and harm to local businesses, but once enacted the bans have not proven to do either. What does happen is that consumers change their habits, pollution is drastically reduced, and valuable natural resources and community financial resources are saved. In reality, it’s a pretty small adaptation — many of us are already accustomed to bringing reusable bags with us when we go shopping.

We believe that getting rid of plastic bags is part of an important and worthwhile effort to take care of our Island home. More broadly, it makes a statement that we care, and that we expect our visitors to do the same — a sentiment we hope goes beyond shopping bags and influences the small choices each of us makes to help protect this place we love.

Read more about the proposed bylaw, including information on which types of bags would be prohibited, at our website: or please attend one of our public information sessions to hear more and ask questions: February 3, West Tisbury library, 6 pm; February 10,  Tisbury Senior Center, 6 pm; February 16, Oak Bluffs library, 6 pm; Edgartown in March.

Samantha Look is the VCS outreach coordinator and a member of the VCS board. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College, where she studied environmental science. Sam has deep Island roots, with generations of family from West Tisbury, where she lives today with her husband, Kristian, and children, Taz and Ayla.