Plastic shopping bags: We can live without them

The plastic bag debate has waged for a long time in Connecticut. Back in 2011, Associate Editorial Page Editor Ann Baldelli, since retired, looked out from the window of her fourth floor office only to see several bags stuck high in nearby trees.

“Maybe it's just me, but once I see a bag snarled in limbs, well, that's all I see,” wrote Baldelli in her column that week. The legislature, she noted, was considering a bill intended to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags by requiring stores to collect five cents for every bag they give to shoppers.

Not enough, wrote Baldelli. Ban them.

“If people insist on paper, let them have it, but get rid of the plastic,” Baldelli stated.

Of course, the law did not pass and neither did attempts to curb bag use in subsequent years.

In the meantime, many consumers have been voluntarily turning to reusable bags and ditching the plastic. But data is lacking on how commonplace reusable bag use is.

A couple of years ago a study found that about 28 percent of consumers reported having either purchased or received reusable bags. The bag owners, however, forgot to bring their bags on roughly 40 percent of their trips to the grocery store. And 70 percent of reusable bag owners reported using at least one plastic or paper bag instead of or in addition to their reusable bags.

Now comes the latest initiative, a grassroots effort promoted, appropriately, by the Green Party in Waterford, which has had some success winning seats in recent local elections. The measure would ban the single-use plastic bags by grocers and retailers in the town. Home to the Crystal Mall and several big-box shopping centers, Waterford is the region’s retail hub, adding to the significance of the proposed ban.

The Representative Town Meeting voted to send the proposal to the Public Health, Recreation and Environment Committee, which if it backs the proposal would provide recommendations on regulation and enforcement. Given a favorable recommendation, the measure would return to the RTM for final approval or rejection.

There is no question the bags are a nuisance and environmentally unfriendly. Their widespread use leads to thousands ending up in the wind, creating a major source of litter — including ending up in trees. Plastic is becoming a massive source of pollution for the world’s oceans, and the bags are a big contributor. And they don’t degrade for hundreds of years.

The bags are an oil-based product, making them a terrible use for a finite natural resource. They can also pose a danger to wildlife through accidental ingestion or entanglement.

They are not very convenient. A couple of sturdy, reusable bags can handle the groceries that a cashier would spread over a dozen plastic bags. Sometimes it seems cashiers must be receiving an incentive to use as many bags as possible.

Society lived without these bags before and could do so again.

But what to do?

If Waterford approves a ban, it would become the third Connecticut municipality to have done so, following Westport and Greenwich.

This piecemeal approach is not the best solution. Stores in one town would have to operate with different rules than a nearby competitor. And consumers should not have to consult local ordinances when preparing to shop.

The better option would be a uniform state law. Whether that would take the shape of an outright ban, or by trying to encourage reusable bags by imposing the disincentive of a deposit on plastic bags, should be a matter for debate and discussion.

Past letters and online comments show the issue has significant public interest. Folks need to let their elected leaders know how they feel, and that is particularly true for Waterford and its RTM members.

It’s time to find a consensus to greatly reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, because with 169 towns and cities, the one-by-one approach doesn’t make much sense.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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