Sunday, November 25, 2007

Plastic Bag Ban Proposed for New Jersey

Two Assemblymen have introduced a bill to ban plastic bags for large retailers in New Jersey.

They want to ban the use of plastic bags in stores larger than 10,000 square feet, such as supermarkets and big-box retail stores, by the end of 2010.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, who introduced the measure with Assemblyman Jack Conners, D-Camden, said he and his wife have switched to canvas reusable bags and doubts the rest of the public will mind switching in the name of helping the environment.

"It really is not going to cause anybody to change anything they ordinarily do. You're going to have to take your groceries and your purchases home from the store, and you're going to need a sack of some sort to do that," Conaway said. "But by not using plastic bags, you're keeping toxins out of the streams, you're therefore keeping those toxins out of the food chain, and you're not only protecting yourself, in some small way, but also the world."
The article gives no indication of a timetable for consideration of the bill or of how much support the measure may have in the state assembly. The bill is opposed by an industry group that styles itself the "Progressive Bag Alliance." The same group was instrumental in defeating a proposed ban in Annapolis, Maryland, last week.

Meanwhile, my friends at DC Audubon are trying to build support for banning plastic bags within the District of Columbia. Several other organizations have endorsed the proposal, but some of the big environmental organizations have stayed on the sidelines so far. If you are a DC resident and support the effort, consider signing the online petition.

So why should grocery bags concern birders? First of all there is an aesthetic issue. I am sure that all of us have seen tattered bags hanging off trees or floating in the water in our local birding spots. More importantly, the choice of grocery bags has consequences beyond trips to the supermarket. Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels, and their production causes the emission of greenhouse gases. Over one trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide each year, and most of them end up as trash - either in landfills or blowing free around the landscape. Unlike paper or food waste, plastic is not biodegradable. Instead it fragments into tiny pieces that persist for centuries while releasing toxins.

The proliferation of plastic waste in the environment has a direct impact on the birds we watch. For example, one Laysan Albatross (pictured right) was found dead with a pound of plastic in its abdomen. This is hardly an isolated case. A study comparing albatrosses that died of "natural causes" with those killed by motor vehicles found that the former had ingested excessive amounts of plastic.
Ninety-five dead and 39 injured Laysan Albatross chicks were necropsied in 1994 and 76 dead and 41 injured Laysan Albatross chicks were necropsied in 1995. Of these 251 chicks, only six (2.4%) did not contain plastic. Plastic items comprised chips and shards of unidentified plastic, Styrofoam, beads, fishing line, buttons, chequers, disposable cigarette lighters, toys, PVC pipe and other PVC fragments, golf tees, dish-washing gloves, magic markers and caylume light sticks.
When ingested, plastic does not usually kill a bird outright but instead hampers its ability to care for itself, either by blocking important food passages or reducing its appetite. Other seabird species, such as Northern Fulmars, also ingest plastic. To a bird, large pieces of plastic can appear to be jellyfish and small pieces can look like fish eggs or algae. Since plastic floats it seems like an easy meal. Marine mammals and reptiles face similar problems.

Industry advocates rightly point out that paper is not much better. While it is biodegradable and easier to recycle, it uses more energy to produce and transport a paper bag than a plastic bag. In addition, much of our paper is produced from trees in sensitive areas, such as the boreal forest. Similar considerations impede adoption of biodegradable or vegetable-based plastics. Ultimately the best solution is to replace disposable bags with reusable bags as much as possible. It is not just a matter of replacing one disposable with another. Any measure that pushes in that direction is worth supporting.