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Why it's hard to get plastic bag bans to stick

May 18, 2017

Plastic bags are all around us. They’re a persistent litter problem on land and along the Great Lakes. Some cities have tried to ban bags or charge a fee for them. But it's hard to make these bans stick.

There's a tiny beach at Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo, New York. It looks out over Lake Erie, and Nate Drag with the Alliance for the Great Lakes says it’s one of his favorite spots.

The beach is only a few yards across, but it's loaded with debris. Some natural, like driftwood, some, not so much.

"But the closer you look, you can start seeing the plastic popping out," says Drag.

Part of Drag's job is to organize beach clean ups. Last year, he says, hundreds of volunteers picked up thousands of pounds of trash.

Among them, plastic bags.

"So, ok. There you go. There's a garbage bag, and then there’s a shopping bag," he says.

The Alliance is one of many organizations advocating for reduced use of plastic bags. Back in his office, Drag explains that the same things that make plastic bags so great for us, also make them bad for the ecosystem.

“The fact that they are relatively strong means they will last a long time and they’re relatively light so they will blow in the breeze and move in the water,” he says.

Plastic bag bans have been gaining popularity since San Francisco became the first major city to ban them outright in 2007. Since then, other coastal and Great Lakes communities have proposed similar laws, including small fees for using them at the checkout.

Some companies even enforce their own bag rules. Michaela Cultrara is the community relations supervisor for Hart's Grocer in Rochester, New York. She says they offer 10 cent credits to customers with reusable bags.

"Any time you're using a reusable bag you're not wasting and you're not creating more waste for the environment and that's something that has always been part of our mission and that we’ve always believed in,” she says.

But not everyone is moved to change. As a customer named Micah Hopkins checks out at a Hart’s register, he opts for a plastic bag. He says a small fee probably wouldn’t change that.

"The fact that [plastic bags] are relatively strong means they will last a long time and they're relatively light so they will blow in the breeze and move in the water."

“Might add up after a while but, I don’t think it would make me bring my own bag, still,” he says.

Opponents of bag bans say fees disproportionately impact poorer shoppers. Others say reusable and paper bags are rough on the ecosystem, too. And some companies argue that it’s inefficient to have regulations vary from city to city.

But the main argument, Drag says, is people just don’t like being told what to do.

“We’ve gotten really used to our conveniences. And it’s hard to switch from that but we did exist before those things so I think we’ll be ok. Hopefully," he laughs.

Around the Great Lakes, some environmentalists are concerned about the impact of plastics on wildlife.

But in some places, like Michigan and Wisconsin, the backlash against local bans has caused state lawmakers to ban bans altogether.

To fight the backlash, Sherri Mason is taking a different approach. She's a professor of chemistry and chair of the department of geology and environmental sciences at SUNY Fredonia. At a public forum in Buffalo, Mason regales her audience with plastic bag facts. But her outreach goes beyond trying to communicate the scope of the problem.

"If we can get people to understand the impact that that plastic bag has, then that can lead to a whole re-evaluation of our relationship with that material,” she says.

Mason is involved in several studies to try to connect the plastic bag use to human health. She says plastic bags break down in the water, become microplastics, and get into our bodies in different ways.

"We all use salt, and many of us drink beer, and we all drink drinking water, so we decided to do a study that was focused on those consumable products. And we’re seeing plastics in all of them,” she says.

Plastic can act as a perfect surface for chemicals to hitch a ride on, chemicals that cause problems in human hormone development. The studies are still underway, but Mason says if the plastic is in the water, it’s in us.

This story comes to us from Great Lakes Today, a collaboration of WBFO Buffalo, Ideastream Cleveland and WXXI Rochester.