Waste & Recycling


Its Out of the Bag

I flew into Maui on 13 January for a vacation.
I did not want to think about garbage for ten days or so…
On my first trip to the grocery store I noticed little placards announcing a ban on plastic bags. As my vacation wore on I noticed these all over the island.
Rather than the ubiquitous reusable plastic bags we trundle around with, my groceries were packed in paper bags-which the Americans still seem pretty fond of (by the way when’s the last time you saw groceries being taken home in plastic bags in the movies). Some had handles and were defined as reusable- if reusable was defined as destined to break the first time you used it.
The ordnance implementing the plastic carry-out bag ban was passed in August 2008. It was put in place to deal with litter concerns and to try and protect marine life which can ingest if not become entangled in plastic bags. The ban itself came into place on 11 January of this year.
Plastic bags don’t litter. People do. Once they become litter however they are a nuisance. They blow around and end up in all sorts of places including the ocean. I suppose paper bags don’t blow around so much if they are littered and will eventually decompose.
My whale watching outing later in the week brought home the incredibleness of the ocean. It featured humpback whales flipping and flopping all over the place. The amount of marine life in the region was amazing and made pretty clear that part of the Island’s motivation to ban plastic carry-out bags.
There did not seem to be any hue and cry: People seemed to be adapting. Plastic bags were fully replaced by paper bags so there was no inconvenience or costs charges to customers. There were places where you could buy reusable plastic bags.
I lived in Ireland when they introduced a plastic bag ban in 2002 or more accurately passed a $0.25 fee on each plastic bag sold. There was no hue and cry there either. Just a lot of people stoically carrying 100 euros worth of groceries, in their arms, because they were too cheap to buy bags- reusable or otherwise.
Banning plastic bags has little to no impact on the operation of a landfill. They don’t weigh very much or take up much space. They do not clog landfills. They can be effectively collected and recycled.
The key advantages of plastic bags- they are light and durable- are their key environmental disadvantages. They become litter easily and remain so for a very long time thereafter.
You think that littering would be so publically frowned upon that it would not be an issue. It shouldn’t be a problem but it is. Public education programs do not have the desired impact on what should be pretty basic human behaviour. Sometimes a more quantitative approach works better- “no you can’t” versus “please don’t”.
Banning plastic carry-out bags on an island such as Maui has the potential to have a measureable impact on the amount that become part of the litter stream. It would be interesting to see a quantitative study in a couple of years that measures the impact of this ban.
I flew out of Maui on 22 January from a vacation.
I had not wanted to think about garbage for ten days or so…
I resisted stopping at recycling depots and taking photos of anything related to garbage because you know sometimes you just have to give it a rest… Or at least try.

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