Cleaning up Baltimore's trash-strewn streets would solve a lot of problems [Letter]

This afternoon I went to my office to write letters in support of Baltimore's bag tax, and during my half-block commute, a discarded plastic bag blew across my path. I did what I usually do: Chased it down and picked it up. It was one less bag in the belly of a dead whale ("Bag tax economics," Jan. 22).

The facts are that the U.S. consumes about 100 billion plastic bags a year out of the total of 1 trillion used worldwide. That's a million plastic bags used per minute. And only 1 percent to 3 percent of them are recycled. Aside from cigarette butts, plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse and a huge reason why there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of ocean.

Most people either don't know or care that it takes 1,000 years for polyethylene bags to completely break down, and even then they don't break down into naturally occurring compounds. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits that contaminate soil and waterways and enter the food chain of animals first, then us. Garbage is what we end up eating.

There's plenty of research on the so-called "broken window theory," which describes how litter affects safety and property values, sullies the perception of locations and discourages investment. Yet here in Baltimore, Styrofoam bans have failed to win City Council support, and a bottle tax has been implemented while a return-deposit system has been rejected due to the city's lack of willingness to deal with the upfront costs and placement of return centers.

Deposits, bag fees and Styrofoam bans have proven positive impact, but in the 17 years I have lived here the status quo hasn't changed. And this despite Baltimore making the news a little over a year ago as the third dirtiest city in the nation behind New Orleans and New York.

Since then NYC has taken some pretty progressive action. On Tuesday, when I was at the bag tax hearing at City Hall, I got a text saying New York had just banned Styrofoam. It's also implementing composting and E-cycling. It's interesting that in less than two years a much bigger ship than ours managed to turn itself around.

But there is always some excuse here. We bicker over the sausage-making aspects of the bill — a regressive tax on the poor, too many exemptions, too few, how it will hurt retailers, how it is a people problem, not a litter problem — and so on. Yet I have seen pitifully few people engaged in the thankless tasks of trying to clean up the existing mess or trying to educate young litterers who are learning from their parents to throw their trash out the car door.

Cleaning up this city would go a long way toward encouraging investment and long-term residents, which would help grow the tax base so that those who live here wouldn't feel as if they were being bled dry. No single solution is going to do it. This needs attacking from many angles. Including taxes, bans and deposits.

Bridget Parlato, Baltimore

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