Bag ban Durango can bolster its image with a leadership role

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JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo illustrati

For some, the debate surrounding banning single-use plastic shopping bags in the city of Durango has become a rallying cry to counter an erosion of American freedom.

I agree that our republic faces real threats to our free society, but not from city ordinances such as smoking bans, leash laws and plastic-bag bans. Our country has thrived because of the rule of law, written by our elected representatives, law that is core to our freedom.

Bans on plastic bags are like any law that societies enact to protect their environment, health, neighbors and future. We remove lead from gasoline because it harms our environment. We ban smoking in public because it is bad for people. We mandate mileage standards on cars because they promote cleaner air and healthier Americans. Like these examples, removing single-use plastic bags from our lives will not reduce our lifestyle, but improve it.

There are compelling reasons to ban single-use plastic bags:

Plastic bags are not “free.” Each year, 100 billion plastic shopping bags are factored into the price of our groceries. Everyone pays for these bags, whether we use them or not. Tack on after-market costs to the environment and our health and the toll is much higher.

Single-use plastic bags use 12 million barrels of oil per year. We will need every drop in the near future to transition beyond oil – it is a finite entity, like the buffalo.

Plastic is one of the biggest toxic global pollutants of our oceans, streams and land – a problem best represented by the enormous “garbage patches” of plastic in our oceans, which did not exist 25 years ago (and 80 percent of which come from land). Removing single-use plastic bags is an easy place to start.

Plastic bags are made to last forever yet are designed to be thrown away. Plastic takes upward of 1,000 years to biodegrade. Except for the infinitesimal amount incinerated, all of the plastic ever produced is still with us.

Only a minute percentage of plastic bags is reused before being thrown out. They all still end up in our landfill, landscape and waterways.

Plastic is toxic and never goes away. It stays in our environment and finds its way into our food supply. Recently, 9 percent of fish in the Northern Pacific tested as having plastic in their bodies. What is poison to our oceans is poison to our land.

Plastic bags are extremely difficult to recycle and therefore aren’t – less than 5 percent go through this reclamation process. Plastics in general are difficult to recycle compared to paper or glass, and more than 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use.

Animals don’t mix with plastic. It kills and maims them by the millions, through ingestion, strangulation and entanglement.

If we acknowledge plastic bags as a problem, how can we best tackle it? Some advocate education – and so do I. But education alone simply has not worked – for the same reasons it did not work about smoking. For years, we knew that smoking is harmful, yet 25 years ago, I was vehemently opposed to smoking bans, and held the same litany of reasoning you hear today about banning plastic bags. Despite all the education in the world, I, and millions of other Americans, continued to smoke. It wasn’t until smoking was banned that I was forced to change my behavior, and I finally quit. Without the bans, I’d probably happily still be killing myself.

Although I am no proponent of big-box development in Durango, corporations such as Target and Wal-Mart have been incorporating bag bans into their business models for years. In 2009, Target banned plastic bags in all 283 of its Australian stores. Walmart recently announced it will open six new stores in Washington, D.C., the first city to curtail plastic-bag use. Years before Durango even thought of a plastic-bag ban, corporations were preparing for them.

In dozens of U.S. cities, from Brownsville, Texas, to San Francisco to Telluride, there is not a shred of evidence that tourism is negatively impacted by bag bans. Being a leader in what will become accepted norms shines positive light on communities that embrace the future before it fully arrives. Banning single-use plastic bags now, rather than in a few years, places Durango in a leadership role – one that is good for our image and good for business.

Paper or plastic? That question is like comparing a gunshot wound to cancer. Although paper biodegrades, is 100 percent renewable and easily recycles, it is as resource-intensive as plastic. The best choice is to bring your own bag, which becomes second nature. But we all forget our bags sometimes. In most cities with bans, “greener” single-use bags are available for a minimal fee.

We can ask ourselves as a community, do we want to continue to be part of the problem or to proactively be part of the solution?

Erich Bussian is a Durango businessman, a Sustainability Alliance board member, lecturer and consultant. Reach him at 946-4342 or at erich@animas.net.

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