COMMENTARY: Council Should Consider Whether Our Plastic Footprint Is Bigger Than Plastic Bags

 

In my travels around the world and the United States, the proliferation of plastic waste — especially plastic bags — is extremely distressing. Along roadsides in many countries, including our own, there are piles of plastic debris that, unless collected, will remain for 10-1,000 years.

Our oceans are awash with debris fields of plastic with an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic going into the world’s oceans every year, seriously endangering aquatic life. Recently a dead whale was found in Spain with 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach and another in the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic — ranging from corrugated tubes, to shopping bags to detergent packaging with the bar code still on it. Animals are rescued every day that are ensnared in plastic — particularly plastic straws. Mother Nature surely has a tear in her eye, and we as humans should be gravely concerned about the amount of these materials going into the food chain.

Americans use an estimated 380 billion plastic bags a year — an estimated 500 billion to a trillion around the world. In 2017 Forbes Magazine reported that as a nation, Americans use one million plastic bottles per minute of which 91% are not recycled. The statistics are staggering.

For this reason, I applaud County Councilwoman Sunny Simon for her long-time quest to ban single-use plastic bags in Cuyahoga County. Legislation recently introduced by Simon and co-sponsored by Councilman Dale Miller would not totally ban plastic bags but would substantially limit their use. If enacted as currently written, the law would take effect October 1, 2019 and would impose a warning for first-time offenders and fines for subsequent offenses on retailers who do not comply with the law which would require retailers to utilize paper bags that are 100 % recyclable.

Simon is not alone in seeking legislation that would ban or limit plastic bags. Forbes Magazine reported in 2018 that they had compiled a list of 349 countries, states and cities that have imposed some limitation on the use of single-use plastic bags. Thus far in the United States only California and Hawaii have statewide bans, but New York State is currently considering a similar legislation.

While I agree with the intent of the Simon-Miller legislation, I am deeply concerned that retailers will pass on any additional costs of recyclable bags to consumers. Since people in lower socio-economic groups tend to shop more often, any additional cost could result in a tax on poor people. They should not bear the cost of the program.

In discussing this legislation, county council should also look at the larger picture and include in the implementation a media campaign and public educational program not only to explain the changes regarding the bags available at retail outlets but also explain why this is so important. The county and its Department of Consumer Affairs should work with major retailers before the implementation of the law to assist them in transitioning into the program, making sure to the best of their ability that the cost is not transferred to the consumer. Retailers should be encouraged to add incentives for bringing your own bag and work to make reusable bags available to all. The county should also encourage an organized comprehensive recycling program in every community, public service announcements and community forums on plastic waste and recycling.

On a trip to Peru several years ago, I was impressed with the lack of plastic debris and the excellent recycling program that existed. I learned that the country started an educational program in schools some 20 years ago. Through education — starting in elementary schools — they have a society that is deeply concerned about the environment and works to substantially reduced their plastic footprint. Cuyahoga County does not have 20 years to change social norms, but we do have an opportunity to influence public awareness and disseminate a message that limiting plastic in our landfills and recycling will save our planet for generations to come.

As former president of county council, my recollection is that there are some legal limitations on the ability of county government to impose criminal and/or quasi-criminal penalties for violations of their enactments. The problem is enforcement. The proposed legislation states that the ban would be enforced by the county’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Since that department is not a law enforcement agency, I am not sure how enforcement and imposition of penalties would work. It is my hope that the legal technicalities will be worked out before the law’s implementation so that the county does not gets into extended litigation which will cost taxpayers money and hold up the implementation of the law.

The average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash per day. America disposes of 22 billion plastic bottles per year. We will soon be buried in plastic as our landfills reach capacity. In debating the Simon-Miller legislation, the county council should look at the larger picture of plastic disposal and recycling and work to make Cuyahoga County more eco-friendly community. We owe it to generations to come.

C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.

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