Quick! Drive your quad-cab pickup by yourself 30 miles to the nearest Shop-Rite and grab as many plastic bags as you can before they’re gone forever!
Legislators across New England are looking at banning or charging for plastic bags and straws, which are the sort of things that are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine the American landscape without them. Obviously we carry our groceries home in flimsy plastic bags, and we slurp up our gross new Orange Vanilla Cokes with cheap plastic straws. That’s what this country’s all about, being handed frivolous crap made from plastic and then throwing it away right after we’re done with it.
Connecticut’s Environment Committee recently passed bills outright banning single-use plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam containers. If these bans go into law, and strong bipartisan support on the committee suggests they have a decent shot, they’ll either supplant or augment existing bans that various cities and towns like New Haven and Greenwich already have in place.
There aren’t a lot of good reasons that don’t boil down to “it’s more convenient” to keep single-use plastic and styrofoam items. There’s a special case to be made for some disabled people needing straws, but that’s about it. Most of us will find the end of straws and plastic bags to be annoying and inconvenient at first, but we’ll adapt. We’re not too bad at adapting to the small things like this.
I mean, we used to be way worse. Have you ever seen pictures of highways and streets from the 1960s and 70s? There used to be a lot more litter lying around than there is today, and recycling of any kind didn’t catch on until the 1990s. New York City used to be shrouded in smog, and the Connecticut River was once a lot nastier and more toxic than it is today. Many small actions over a long period of time can add up to something big.
In a better world I could end there and we could all feel good about how we’re cleaning up the environment and helping to stave off mass extinctions and drastic climate change. But we’re not in that world. We’re in this one, and the news from here is dire.
They found a dead, pregnant whale in Italy with 48 pounds of plastic in her stomach. There’s a floating patch of plastic particles in the Pacific Ocean that could be anywhere from the size of Texas to the size of Russia. Insect populations are plummeting as just the latest in a wave of human-linked extinctions. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, thanks in part to an increase in the use of coal. The planet is warming, seas are rising, and the weather is getting more extreme.
Meanwhile, the small things we try to do are running into big, big problems. We try to recycle, but thanks to China and other countries no longer accepting American recyclables, the cost of municipal recycling programs has grown rapidly. Rather than raise taxes to pay for it, many cash-strapped towns and cities are quietly abandoning recycling efforts.
It’s also impossible to control what other countries are doing. Asian countries, specifically China and India, account for a disproportionate amount of ocean garbage and air pollution. China has actually started to get a handle on pollution, which is why they stopped importing foreign garbage, but India is lagging behind.
That’s the trouble with trying to fight for the environment: the small things are inconvenient, but the really important big things seem absolutely impossible. We need to somehow wean ourselves off of plastics, reduce the amount of time we spend alone in our cars, switch to renewable sources of energy, invest in recycling technology here in the United States, and drastically curb the amount of waste we produce.
Banning plastic bags helps. Believe me, it does. Anything is good right now. But there’s so much more that needs doing, and so little appetite for doing it. I wish we’d remember that we’re not so much fighting to save the planet as we’re fighting to save the ability of this planet to support our kind of life.
In short, we can keep going like we’re going and the planet will be fine. We’ll just all be dead.
So yes, these bans on plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam containers deserve to pass. Then we need to move on to the big things, as much as we can.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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