By Christine Adamowicz
Camden Herald op-ed
For decades, the Natural Resources Council of Maine has been working with communities and lawmakers to reduce plastic waste and pollution in our environment. Nov. 6, Camden voters will consider two town ordinances we wholeheartedly support: one would ban single-use plastic bags (placing a 10-cent fee on single-use paper bags at year-round stores selling a line of staple foodstuffs), and the other bans the use of expanded polystyrene containers.
Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem: Researchers predict that by 2050 there will be more tons of plastic than fish in the ocean. Plastics in the environment break up into microscopic pieces that soak up toxic chemicals like mercury, DDT, phthalates, and flame retardants.
Floating in our oceans, these toxic micro-plastics look like food to the shellfish and fish species that we eat. Indeed, researchers at the Shaw Institute in Blue Hill have found an average 177 pieces of micro-plastics per animal in Penobscot Bay oysters. Larger film plastics, like plastic bags, are mistaken for food by seals, turtles, birds and whales. For our health and for the lives of local wildlife, it is time to stem the tide of plastics reaching our waters.
Plastics are also made from fossil fuels — thus, reducing our dependence on plastics is a way to reduce our dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels.
Single-use plastic bag bans, coupled with a fee on paper bags, don’t increase carbon emissions. Camden’s ordinance is designed to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags, not to switch to paper from plastic. Reusable shopping bags can be reused hundreds of times, and after just 11 uses they are better for the environment and climate than plastic bags.
Did you know that only about 5 percent of plastic shopping bags and zero percent of foam takeout food containers get recycled? The vast majority of our single-use plastic bags and all polystyrene foam food containers go to a landfill or incinerator, or become litter. We can do better.
Well-intentioned folks sometimes place plastic bags and foam takeout food containers in with their recyclables, not realizing that the bags can’t be recycled this way, and polystyrene can’t be recycled at all, anywhere in Maine. Plastic bags jam recycling machines and both materials contaminate bales of recyclable materials that our municipalities struggle to sell.
Even if we reuse a plastic shopping bag once or twice, the environmental impact is still greater than that of reusable bags. It is far better for the environment to bring to the store a durable bag that can be used over and over for years than to reuse a plastic bag a couple of times.
Camden’s ordinance gets to the core of sustainability, which is to consider reducing plastic use in all forms, use all resources efficiently, and create less waste and pollution. Did you know that Camden residents use about 1.44 million single-use plastic bags every year? That’s a lot! And there are plenty of environmentally friendly alternatives to both single-use bags and polystyrene foam food containers.
For these reasons, we think Camden should seize the opportunity to join 15 other Maine towns — including Belfast and Rockland — and more than 100 states and nations in addressing the problem of single-use plastic bags. NRCM has interviewed code enforcement officers in the Maine towns that have plastic bag ordinances, and they have all said that the transition has been easy for both residents and businesses.
Indeed, the sky has not fallen in these towns — to the contrary, these towns have less litter, cleaner waters and more recognition as eco-friendly destinations. On behalf of NRCM, I urge you to vote to support the ordinances to ban plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers in Camden.
Christine Adamowicz is sustainable Maine outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.