Blowin' in the wind

November 27, 2007

The night before San Francisco's first-in-the-nation ban on plastic bags took effect last week, the Annapolis City Council rejected a bid to make it bag-free city No. 2.

The Annapolis ban was not killed outright, but was smothered to death with a weaker option calling for a study of the effectiveness of voluntary reusable bags and the city's approach to broader environmental issues.

As a practical matter, opponents of the ban, which included Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and most of the business community, were correct that it was too extreme at this juncture and would have encouraged the use of paper bags, which pose their own environmental and energy concerns.

Nonetheless, Annapolitans and everyone else who cares about the ecological health of a city with such vast impact on the Chesapeake Bay should demand that the study be a genuine inquiry leading to sounder environmental practices - not just an empty gesture to placate supporters of the bag ban.

Plastic bags, particularly those flimsy things that come by the dozen with a week's worth of groceries, have nothing to recommend them but convenience. They are made from oil, a scarce global resource. They don't decompose at landfills. And perhaps worst of all, they are littered all over the landscape, fouling waterways and choking sealife.

A giant patch of plastic bits and pieces now floating in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to weigh 3 million tons and cover an area twice the size of Texas, is believed to be made from such trash.

The danger from these bags is increasingly being recognized internationally - and a variety of potential solutions are being discussed. Baltimore City Councilman James B. Kraft says he plans shortly to offer city merchants a range of options, including dispensing only bag material that is usable, biodegradable or compostable - or charging 5 cents extra for bags that are not.

Clearly, most important to the success of any anti-bag campaign, though, is that individuals take the lead. People must be responsible for their trash, whether it's taking plastic bags back to the grocery store for reuse or recycling, coping with the inconvenience of reusable cloth bags, or taking a few moments to de-bag the landscape of the litter that swirls around in every stiff wind.

Citizens should lead where (some) politicians fear to tread.

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