We are winding down another fun summer in Baltimore. We’ve spent countless hot days at street fests, walking our dogs or kids to the park, watching the fireworks from our porches, exercising in Patterson or Druid Hill Park, or dashing out from the office to grab lunch. But there’s one thing we can’t help but notice along the way: plastic bags. Stuck on a tree limb, sitting in a gutter or trampled on the sidewalk, abandoned plastic bags are everywhere in our city.
Since the introduction of Mr. Trash Wheel in 2014, the litter cleaning fleet has collected 627,000 plastic bags from the Harbor. And it’s no big surprise: On average, we each use hundreds of plastic bags per year and there is no way to properly dispose of them.
Plastic bag disposal is a lose, lose, lose. They jam up the city’s recycling machinery, and every plastic bag we throw away ends up burned in our toxic incinerator and polluting our air or buried in a leaky landfill polluting our water. If they get loose, they end up littering our neighborhoods, roads, waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.
Plastic bag litter wreaks havoc on our quality of life and the environment. When plastic bags enter the water system, they don’t biodegrade like paper, food or other organic materials. Rather, they’ll remain intact or break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, creating a toxic plastic “soup” that’s easily ingested by marine life. Plastic fragments have been found ingested by literally hundreds of different species, including 86% of all sea turtle species, and nearly half of all seabird and marine mammal species. So when you put the fish you buy in a plastic bag, know this: There may also be some plastic bag in your fish.
We all know the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It’s time to reduce plastic production, move to reusable, and use truly recyclable materials for the rest.
We’re thrilled that the Baltimore City Council is considering a ban on single-use plastic bags. This legislation would reduce the use of plastic and shift consumer behavior toward reusable bags. Paper and compostable bags would still be available, but with a 5-cent surcharge proven effective to incentivize the use of reusables. Hundreds of cities and states across the country have passed similar measures, and some national chains and local businesses have voluntarily phased out or committed to phase out plastic bags and other single-use plastics. Baltimore has been a leader on reducing plastic pollution through our ban on foam food packaging, and now is the time to ban single-use plastic bags.
You might wonder how we could go on without something as ubiquitous in daily life as plastic bags, but it’s important to remember that we don’t need them. Plastic bags weren’t introduced in this country until the 1970s. We managed without them before, and we can manage again. And we should. Nothing we use for a few minutes should be able to pollute our communities for hundreds of years.
Environment Maryland staff spent the summer knocking on doors to talk to Marylanders about plastic pollution. We talked with 2,000 Baltimoreans and collected nearly 1,000 petition signatures from residents calling on legislators to support a ban on single use plastic bags. This legislation reflects Baltimoreans’ commitment to keeping our communities litter free and reducing plastic pollution in the bay.
We pay the cost of our plastic problem with our public health, our environment, our quality of life, and increased cleanup costs for the Department of Public Works. Let’s kick our plastic problem and send Mr. Trash Wheel into an early retirement.