The Baltimore City Council was poised this year to finally pass a meaningful ban on plastic bags, the environmental hazards that fill our waterways, clog storm drains and wind up in the bellies of turtles, whales and other wildlife. They had secured a likely veto-proof supermajority of supporters for the legislation, introduced by City Councilman Bill Henry, but now have disappointingly capitulated under pressure from retailers.
A council committee voted this week to amend the threshold on the proposed plastic bag ban from those that are 4 mils and thinner — a mil is one thousandth of an inch — to those that are 2.25 mils and below, meaning flimsy bags are out under the proposal, and thicker bags are in.
The rationale is that consumers will reuse the thicker bags. Our bet is that people will reuse them no more or less than they do the thinners bags. And eventually all the bags, no matter the size, will get thrown out, and plenty will be found floating around the harbor or flapping in between tree limbs. If the council wants to push reusable bags, the cloth ones are the best option, as they are sturdier than any plastic bag and will last longer.
The change in the proposed legislation gives retailers little incentive to stop using plastic bags. In effect, Baltimore will be in the same position it is in now.
The movement across the country is to stop using these bags altogether. They are a scourge on the environment, and it’s better for the city to jump all the way in now and nudged retailers to follow suit. Several have have already made the switch or always used paper versions — Whole Foods, Chipotle, Starbucks, just to name a few.
Some of the most prolific users of plastic packaging are also looking to change their ways. Switzerland-based Nestle is in the middle of an initiative to make all of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025. And Unilever announced this week a less ambitious, though still massive, effort to cut in half its use of new plastic by that same year; it aims to reduce its use of plastic from around 700,000 tons to no more than 350,000 tons.
The abominable impact plastic is having on the environment is not going to ease up without a concerted human effort. People are going to have to stop using it — plain and simple.
Already, one report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the World Economic Forum, predicts plastics in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050. More precisely, there will be 937 millions tons of plastic compared to 895 million tons of fish. That figure alone should be enough to make people do the right thing. If not, the photos of dead whales, their body cavities fill with straws, cups and other plastics, ought to arouse some guilt in some folks.
The City Council has tried eight other times to pass legislation to institute a ban, so we understand the desire to enter into a compromise to make it a reality this time around. We just don’t think this is the right concession.
We also sympathize with retailers who worry about the costs of a plastic bag ban, but think they will adjust — as will customers, who may grumble at first, but eventually accept the new way life. That is what happened in other cities: they made the switch relatively unscathed, and Baltimore could as well. But under the latest version of the bill, we’ll never know.