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On the Topic of What to Do About Plastic Bags

Mackenzie Martin / WXPR
Martha Pierpont at the Mercer Public Library, where WXPR stopped to solicit questions for their Curious North Road Trip in June.

In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks a bit about plastic shopping bags in response to a Curious North question.

This article is inspired by a Curious North question, by Martha Pierpont, who said “I pick up road litter on my walks and I'm finding more and more plastic bags. Can we do something about plastic bags?”

I lived and worked in a suburb of Kansas City Missouri in my early career. I had to take a trip to the landfill once when I was there, and I vividly remember driving up the road, and seeing what looked like a flock of seagulls over the edge of the dump. As I got closer, though, I realized that what I was seeing was a whole line of trees, and seemingly every branch hooked a partially inflated plastic shopping bag.

Plastic shopping bags are everywhere. In the oceans, they are turning up in the stomachs of fish and wildlife, especially sea turtles who mistake them for jellyfish. On land, they are hooked on fences, trees, really anywhere the wind can carry them. Yet, if you go into any store in the Northwoods, you are offered a plastic bag for your purchase, if you are offered a bag at all. A notable and commendable exception is Trig’s grocery, which still offers you a choice of paper or plastic.

Some of the stores use very strong, high quality plastic bags. We empty and reuse these bags, usually for picking up and disposing of dog droppings. Most of our bags get reused in some way or recycled. Unfortunately, a certain big, big box store switched their plastic bags maybe 18-24 months ago to these really cheap, flimsy bags that are so low quality that your purchases now end up being double-bagged. This has the opposite effect of what we would want, which is less plastic in the environment.

Our plastics do not go away. Every plastic straw, and plastic comb or toothbrush we have ever put in a landfill is still there in its original form. Plastic bags seem to photodegrade a bit in the sun and elements, but it is very slow. Our local recyclers do not want plastic bags in their recycle bins and dumpsters, and with good reason. The number one cost they face when operating recycling machinery is plastic bags wrapping up in the equipment. You can find some local plastic recycling, mostly in the form of a collection box outside the main entrance. This is where most of my bags (and other plastic) end up.

Can we do anything about plastic bags? Sure we can! We can do anything. All we need to do is tell our elected representatives to do it and have us pay for it with our taxpayer or shopping dollars. For example, I recently spent over a week in Portland Oregon. Talk about a green city! They take amazing efforts to minimize waste, reduce energy use, and recycle. They charge a deposit on cans and bottles, they do not offer drinking straws, and yes, they even have done something about plastic bags. Not just Portland, but the entire state of Oregon, passed a law prohibiting large retailers and grocery stores from offering plastic checkout bags. Stores are able to offer recycled paper bags and reusable plastic bags for a 5 cent fee. They would ask if you brought your own bags, and if you didn’t, you were given paper bags. If you wanted plastic bags, you had to pay for them.

What would be wrong with that? If you search the web, there is a lot of information about how you have to kill trees to make paper bags and they take up space in landfills. That may be true, but the fact is we are a state that has tens of thousands of families that make their living working in the paper industry. That topic aside, the fact is you can get a law passed to outlaw plastic bags. You can get a law passed to outlaw toxic lead bullets, too. And although no one has asked me, you could even get a law passed that charges a deposit/core charge on a new television just like when you buy a car battery. Aside from that, Martha, I’m afraid all we can do is use reusable shopping bags, recycle plastic bags at retail stores, and support business that offer alternative bag options. And of course, if you see someone running across the street chasing a plastic shopping bag, don’t run them over, because it might be me!

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

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The Masked Biologist is a weekly commentator on WXPR talking about natural resources and wildlife in the Northwoods. He is anonymous so that he can separate his professional life as a biologist from his personal feelings about the natural world.