Beyond bags

Bussian

After a short hiatus, the war of words on single-use plastic bags is once again playing out in The Durango Herald. In question is whether Durango should join the nearly 100 communities across the country that have either banned or put a fee on single-use plastic bags.

Since the City Council election in April and more recently, the LPEA election, it is evident that Durango’s and the region’s demographics and mindset continue to chart a course toward smarter environmental policies.

Durango’s single-stream recycling program represents the direction the city is headed. Change always brings out emotions of excitement and fear, even when change improves the quality of life and a healthier environment.

Cities and counties across the country are banning or placing a fee on single-use plastic bags because they are part of a real environmental problem: the build-up of plastic in our environment. Like carbon in our atmosphere, plastic is beginning to overwhelm us. Plastic is a fantastic thing – so fantastic that it is now used for everything. The trouble is, plastic stays around for a very long time – a lot longer than the utility it was built for: hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Plastic build-up is best illustrated by the giant continent-sized gyres in all our oceans. These gyres are great collecting points of plastic generated by communities thousands of miles away and illustrate the damage plastic is causing our environment on a global level. There are no gyres of wood, glass or paper; these substances sink back into our world. Plastic floats like permanent pond scum.

We have to recognize, as Austin, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have, that plastic is indeed a problem and start to do something about it. These cities, like a hundred more and dozens of countries, have taken action by banning or placing a reasonable fee on plastic bags that has greatly reduced their usage.

In Durango alone, we use upwards of 7 million plastic bags a year. Most of these end of up in the landfill to sit for hundreds of years, but many also wind up blowing around our landscape, never to fully disappear, but be incorporated into the land and devoured by creatures both big and small.

Plastic bags are particularly hard to deal with after their use. Fewer than 5 percent of plastic bags are ever recycled (vs. aluminum for example, which has an 80 percent recycle rate). Durango’s comprehensive recycling program cannot, like most community recycling centers, accept them. And though a small percentage of these bags are reused, even that use is merely a stop on the way to the landfill.

A more compelling reason to regulate plastic bags is the resources it takes to produce them. It is energy intensive. Plastic bags are made of fossil fuels, i.e. oil and natural gas. In a world that is warming as a result of our consumption of carbon-based fossil fuels, consuming 7 million plastic bags per year only for a few minutes to get our groceries home defies logic. The production of one single-use plastic bag consumes enough energy to drive a car 11 meters. That is 77 million meters each year – just in Durango.

There are those in our community who are concerned that a plastic ban or fee will affect tourism. The facts do not support this. Looking at the long list of communities that have passed plastic bag legislation is like looking at a bucket list of places I want to visit: Maui, Santa Monica, Brownsville, Madison, Nantucket, Telluride, Boulder, Carbondale and so on. None of these places has seen one iota of impact on their visitor numbers as a result of bag legislation.

It is more likely that an ordinance would contribute to Durango’s draw. Durango is increasingly seen as a leading-edge community in the state. Gov. John Hickenlooper often comments on the specialness of Durango. A bag ordinance will only help in this image and add our name to the list of communities that are helping lead the state and the country toward responsible environmental stewardship.

Reducing plastic bag consumption in Durango is not going to save the planet – if only it was that simple. However, by passing an ordinance it will bring us one step closer to addressing the very real issues around plastic in our environment and at the same time contribute to the reduction in fossil fuel usage. City Council should be applauded for joining the growing group of communities that are taking action.

Erich Bussian is the CEO of Freenotes Harmony Park and has long been an advocate for shifts in environmental and energy policy. Reach him at erich@animas.net.

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