Ashland left holding the bag

Ashland considers itself among the most environmentally conscientious communities in the nation. This makes our blindness to the daily destruction of our water and earth by the use of disposable plastic bags difficult to comprehend.

Around the world, disposable plastic bags are being outlawed or taxed. China has banned free plastic bags. Bangladesh and Rwanda have banned them altogether. Ireland taxes the bags with the result that 90 percent of the consumers there use their own shopping bags. San Francisco and Oakland have taken action against such use, and yet somehow the city of Ashland has not acted. Why not?

While the Co-op has started charging for paper bags, Safeway, Albertsons and Shop 'N' Kart have yet to enforce such rules.

The American Chemistry Council, a lobby and propaganda machine for the plastic producers industry, likes to say that plastic bags are cheaper and stronger than paper, based on the idea that a plastic bag is an equal substitute for a paper bag. To see the lie in this, go to the grocery store and look at how this works in real life. Three to four plastic bags are minimally used in lieu of one paper bag, especially when they're "doubled up" for heavier items.

Technically speaking, plastic bags are recyclable — but it isn't happening. Even among environmentally concerned populations such as the ones that exist in parts of Oregon, fewer than 5 percent of the 16 billion bags distributed in the state annually are recycled. Part of this is laziness, but part is the fact that it costs about $4,000 a ton to recycle such bags into plastic that is then worth but $32 on the market.

When this fact is taken into account, the economics of paper versus plastic are a pretty close call. Of course, this cost comparison does not speak to the down-river expense of cleaning up plastic bag pollution, which is significantly more than that associated with paper waste cleanup.

Plastic bags are not biodegradable. Rather, plastic bags disintegrate in the presence of sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces of toxic petropolymers, eventually becoming microscopic pollution that finds its way into our soil, air and water. There is already six times more of this material in certain areas of the ocean than there is plankton. Sea animals ingest this material, and then are eaten by other animals. Eventually the food chain and humankind is contaminated by plastic.

True, paper bags require the cutting of trees, but one needs to remember that these trees are grown for this specific purpose, just as corn or soybeans are grown. It is not old-growth forests that are being taken down for our bags. These tree farms help the environment by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. By contrast, plastic bags come from the processing of oil, a limited and obviously declining resource.

It is also true that plastic bags take up far less space in landfills than paper bags. But then, a substantially larger percentage of plastic bags go there. Of the estimated one trillion plastic bags set free each year, more than 90 percent are left in the environment. Three times as many paper bags are recycled, and those that don't get recycled will naturally biodegrade.

And of course paper bags, unlike plastic ones, are also compostable. If paper products are contaminated with foodstuffs, such as when they are used to dispense fast food, they can be placed in the waste stream or a backyard composting pile and will eventually decompose. By contrast, a few plastic bags will contaminate a composting system and thus force the abandonment of the entire compost pile.

There is nothing good about the use of disposable plastic products that, after a brief moment of convenience, remain in our environment for thousands of years. In truth, the best practice is to use neither plastic nor paper. Bring your own cloth bag. You will discover that one or two such bags will replace literally dozens of plastic bags and a lot of paper ones.

So many other communities have caught on. Why haven't we?

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