Guest Article by Marion O Arnold, Plastic-Free Easton
Co-authored by Kristen Lycett, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center
The Easton Town Council passed its new plastic bag law in September, 2022. It will go into effect April 2, 2023. If you’d like more information on the new law, you can visit the town website here. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:
Except for restaurants and other food service facilities where spills are a concern, retailers will no longer be allowed to offer free plastic bags for bagging your purchases. You will need to bring your own bags (BYOB), or a box, or wear pants with deep pockets because the bags won’t be there starting April 2!
Under this new law, retailers can provide paper bags for a minimum $0.10 fee per bag. Retailers can also offer reusable bags for purchase as well.
This new ban only affects the plastic bags at checkout. The plastic bags you have come to expect in a grocery store, for example, like wrapping for meats and fish, containers for baked goods, and bags for bulk foods, fruits, and veggies will still be allowed.
So, now is the time to clean out your closets. No doubt many of you have a stash of reusable bags tucked away somewhere. Bring them out into the light, give them a shake, and then put a pile of them in your car. I keep mine behind the driver’s seat. You can put them in the trunk, hang them by the door, or do whatever makes sense for you to have them handy and ready for use. Why wait for April 2? Start using them now to reduce plastic waste!
And if you see Mayor Willey or any of our town council members, thank them for caring enough to staunch the stream of plastic bags that get out and spoil our environment. All of us will benefit from a healthier, cleaner Easton.
You might wonder though, why does making my shopping experience less convenient mean a healthier, cleaner Easton?
From trash clean ups here in Talbot County, to clean ups around the state, plastic bags are one of the more common items found. This is a problem because plastic never really goes away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. When these pieces are 5mm or smaller, they are considered microplastics, which scientists are now discovering everywhere. They are in the ocean, our wastewater, in soil, in our food, and even in the bloodstream of some people. There’s still a lot we don’t know about microplastics, including their impact on human health and the health of other organisms that ingest these plastics.
This is part of why there has been a push to reduce single use plastics, though this has been a slow process. From banning plastic straws, to plastic bag bans, the movement to reduce single use plastic tends to focus on one item at a time. These movements provide education opportunities and force companies and the general public to shift their use of single use plastic, but are often seen as ineffective and a hassle, more than an effort to save the environment. However, plastic bags make up approximately 8% of all trash produced in the United States, with each person using an average of 1 plastic bag per day. This equates to approximately 1 billion plastic bags being used in the United States each year, which requires 12 million barrels of crude oil to make. If we can reduce that number, and our dependence on single use plastics in general, we are moving in the right direction.
Another question you might ask is why ban plastic bags completely? Why not require the use of eco-friendly plastic bags or those labeled as biodegradable?
Unfortunately, “biodegradable” plastic is not as eco-friendly as the plastic industry would like you to believe. According to the EPA, “Plastic that is compostable is biodegradable, but not every plastic that is biodegradable is compostable.”
And not every plastic described as biodegradable is actually that. The EPA goes on to explain that most petroleum-based plastics are not readily biodegradable. A plastic has to be designed to break down in soil or water.
In the right circumstances, they break down into water, carbon dioxide, and inorganic compounds. If the circumstances aren’t right—like, say in a landfill–they might only partially degrade. The partially degraded leftovers can last forever. Meanwhile, some plastics labeled as biodegradable are not. These instead are designed to disintegrate into the fragments we know as microplastics, which means they last forever.
Composting involves microorganisms, heat and humidity to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass. After composting, compostable plastic should turn into actual compost. But, compostable plastic can only be broken down by biological treatment at a commercial or industrial composting facility. We walk Easton’s Rails to Trails path almost every day. More than once I have found a discarded plastic cup from a local coffee shop by the path. Admirably, it’s labeled as compostable, but unfortunately we do not have a commercial composting facility on the Eastern Shore. In fact, there are only a handful of facilities in the US that have the infrastructure to even take compostable bioplastics, so most of these products still end up in landfills where they don’t biodegrade.
Finally, some people will argue that the amount of energy and raw materials that go into making reusable bags far outweigh the resources that go into making flimsy, single use plastic bags. This is true if you’re using a reusable bag to replace a single plastic bag, however multiple uses over time means reusable bags use less energy and fewer raw materials.
In fact, paper bags need to only be reused 4 times, in order to break even with a plastic bag in terms of resource use. Polypropylene bags (higher grade plastic reusable bags) need to be used 14 times to break even with a standard single use plastic bag. Unfortunately though, cotton bags or totes must be used 173 times in order to break even with single use plastic bags. This means that if you don’t already own reusable bags, you should only buy new cotton bags/totes if you plan to use them long term. If you can buy them used or stick to using bags that you already have, you’ll have a lower environmental impact.
The goal is for this plastic bag ban to be in place for the foreseeable future, so regardless of what reusable bags you choose, you should have the opportunity to use them enough that the resources used to create them will be less than if you were using plastic bags instead.
If you aren’t already using reusable bags, it will likely take some time to get used to this new law. It may be inconvenient to remember bags or have to pay when you forget your bags at home but the impact of single use plastic on the environment and the impact of microplastics on human health is far more inconvenient.
And just because you don’t live in Easton, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for a plastic bag ban. Montgomery County and Baltimore City have already instituted a plastic bag ban, Salisbury has a ban going into effect on July 1st, 2023, Baltimore County is considering a ban, and a statewide ban is being discussed by the state legislature this session as well. Regardless of where you live, it’s a great idea to start using reusable bags so that you can get into the habit of it now and reduce the amount of single use plastic that ends up in landfills or the environment.
Finally, if you are in need of reusable bags, be on the lookout for a variety of organizations that will be handing out bags around Easton. From Plastic Free Easton tabling outside grocery stores in the weeks leading up to the ban, to the Town of Easton providing reusable bags to students in local schools, there will be opportunities for you to pick up a few bags at no cost! Keep an eye on our Facebook page as we will be sharing dates and times where you can receive a free reusable bag as we are made aware of these opportunities.