Time to ban stores from giving away plastic bags


June 10, 2008|By Clark Semmes

Recently, I took part in a cleanup of Western Run stream in Mount Washington. Dozens of volunteers in boots and gloves waded into and around our local waterway, picking up whatever garbage we could find. While we came upon many interesting objects - including almost enough car parts to build an entire car - the vast majority of the trash we collected consisted of plastic bags and plastic bottles.

A little research revealed that Americans use 50 billion to 80 billion plastic bags a year. Only a small percentage of these are recycled. The remaining bags end up in our landfills, in our streams or stuck in trees and bushes all over our once-pristine landscape.

But one country has recently taken action to minimize the use of plastic bags - and it's not a place that's usually thought of as a model of environmental conscientiousness.

On June 1, China officially banned stores in that country from giving away plastic bags. Now, if you go shopping in China, you must either pay for a plastic bag in which to carry your purchases or go without.

Why has China outlawed the free plastic bag? Because China, a country with severe environmental problems, is attempting to clean up its act and deal with its environmental issues before its "coming out" party as the host of this summer's Olympic Games.

Before the ban took effect, the Chinese were using 3 billion plastic bags a day. Inevitably, a huge number of these bags ended up clogging streams and choking landfills (it has been estimated that a plastic bag takes 500 to 1,000 years to break down in a landfill). Plastic bags were also a drain on precious resources. China used 37 million barrels of crude oil last year solely in the manufacture of plastic bags.

So the Chinese have taken an enormous step forward in the reduction of trash and the conserving of oil. But what about the United States? Specifically, what about Baltimore?

The damage that plastic bags are causing to our environment and the oil that is wasted in their creation is so aggravating because it is so completely avoidable. Reusable canvas bags are sold in almost any grocery store.

Baltimore has a chance to be a leader on this issue. Last year, San Francisco officials voted to phase in a ban on plastic bags at large supermarkets and pharmacies, but few other U.S. communities have followed suit. The time has come to follow China's lead and ban stores from giving away plastic bags; those who want to use plastic bags should have to pay for them.


Clark Semmes is a founder of the Mount Washington Green Club.

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