The petrochemical-fueled Eye of Sauron

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To the Editor:

It was easy to see this one coming. It took a few months, but the American Progressive Bag Alliance (in the person of chairman Mark Daniels) has finally weighed in on the effort to ban single-use plastic checkout bags on our Island. Like a petrochemical-fueled Eye of Sauron, gazing out over America from its K Street suite in Washington, the APBA maintains a vigilant watch for bag bans and then lobbies to stop them — or even undo them. In 2014, the APBA spent $3 million in just a few months to block a bag ban that had already passed the California legislature. Naturally, I hope that our Island is not so important to the bottom line of the plastic manufacturers that it’s worth unleashing such a war chest here. But even if they do, I’m confident that Islanders won’t be swayed by a misinformation campaign, no matter how sophisticated.

Citing the rejection of bag bans last year in the Massachusetts towns of Greenfield and Winchester, Mr. Daniels argues that people are wising up and coming around to his position. As part of a pattern of misleading statements repeated throughout the letter, he conveniently ignores the passage of bans that same year in nine other towns: Barnstable, Cambridge, Concord, Hamilton, Harwich, Newton, Northampton, Truro, and Williamstown.

Further, the evolving tactics of the APBA suggest that even they may not truly believe the claim that public sentiment is trending in their favor. In contrast, sensing the tide of more and more towns passing bag bans, the plastic manufacturers have moved on to lobbying state legislatures to pass laws restricting the freedom of local communities to make their own decisions. When Georgia’s vacation destination Tybee Island sought to eliminate plastic bags to protect the natural environment that supports its tourist economy (sound familiar?), the state legislature moved to prohibit such local ordinances. This “ban-ban bill” passed the Georgia Senate but was stopped in the House. In Missouri, similar restrictions passed both houses before being vetoed by the governor. But in Florida and Arizona, state laws prohibiting local bag bans have indeed been enacted.

Now that I’ve noted where these pro–plastic bag arguments are coming from, is it worth addressing the substance of the letter? Some of it is absurd, like misreading a 9:2 ratio of passage to failure as evidence that bag bans are falling out of favor; some of it is blatant fear-mongering, such as the claim that reusable bags cause norovirus; and much of it is simply misleading wordplay with a few numbers mixed in. For example, on first glance, “90 percent of Americans reuse them at least once” suggests that 90 percent of the bags are reused, but actually says no such thing. In fact, taken literally it could mean that 10 percent of Americans have never once reused a plastic bag in their lives (which probably isn’t true either).

That said, there is one subject raised by Mr. Daniels that I will address because it is near and dear to VCS, and critical to the complicated economic questions surrounding local bag bans: recycling.

At VCS, we enthusiastically support recycling. We helped create the Island’s first recycling center at the West Tisbury dump in 1973. But even back then, we understood that recycling comes third in the now famous phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” for a reason. Our goal is the reduction of the total amount of plastic we use, so that the other two legs of the stool can handle the rest. Reuse is wonderful, but in reality, for every plastic bag that lines a trashcan there are many more that go directly into it. There are just too many of them to reuse them all. As to recycling, not all materials are equally suitable, and thin plastic bags are one of the worst. Yes, it is technically possible to recycle plastic bags (almost anything can be “recycled” today), but the process is inefficient and expensive, and there is a limited market for the end product. To satisfy that limited market, there is no shortage of thin film plastic everywhere else in our lives: cereal and bread bags, loose produce bags, newspaper bags, and the wrap that’s around everything from paper towels to bell peppers. There will never be enough composite decking boards in the world to absorb all the thin film plastics we create.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard (as in many other communities), there is no municipal recycling for plastic bags because neither Bruno’s nor the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District accept them. If you’ve been to a MVRD transfer station recently, you might have seen the prominent new signs reminding us to not even think about putting plastic bags in the recycling dumpsters. It’s not because the MVRD is on an environmental crusade to protect birds, fish, and turtles from strangulation — it’s because the bags are costing them, and by extension all of us, a lot of money. Plastic bags are the greatest enemy of an economically sustainable recycling system, routinely tangling up the equipment and causing costly work stoppages. On our Island we now pay more per ton to haul away our recyclables than our trash.

Recycling doesn’t have to save money to be worthwhile — obviously VCS believes it’s worth the cost to protect our environment — but we need not be spending even more than we have to simply to support the plastics industry. Not one penny of our dump stickers should subsidize the cost of composite decking boards.

There are many compelling reasons beyond local recycling economics to support this bag ban: protecting wildlife, litter reduction, even slowing our contribution to the great plastic soup in the ocean. Please visit the VCS website (vineyardconservation.org) and read our FAQ, and even more important, make sure to head to your town meeting and support this initiative to protect our Island environment.

Jeremy Houser

Vineyard Conservation Society