With support from Selectmen, Boards of Health, and Conservation Commissions, VCS put an article on the 2016 Town Meeting warrants proposing to ban the use of disposable plastic checkout bags. The bylaw has passed everywhere it has been voted on: Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury; Chilmark and Aquinnah vote in coming weeks.
April 2017: We're On to Oak Bluffs!
In 2016, Oak Bluffs' Selectmen postponed consideration of the ban, but it has now been submitted via citizens' petition to be brought before the voters at the 2017 Town Meeting on April 11. Several businesses who wish to continue the use of disposable checkout bags have also submitted their own plastic bag bylaw to be voted on at Town Meeting. Read all about the differences here.
What does the Bring Your Own Bag bylaw do?
Why Ban Plastic Bags?
It's Time to Bag the Plastic
We’ve all used them. If you are anything like me, you might have an unruly kitchen drawer, frustrating all attempts at properly closing, from which glimpses of plastic handles protrude. Or maybe it’s a mountain of balled plastic in the corner of a pantry shelf, threatening to avalanche across your dry goods. The carryout plastic bag was not even available until the 1970s, and only widespread by the 80s, but in that short time it has made an assertive move into the fabric of consumer culture. Today, the average American uses 500 single-use bags a year.
In my house, Bag Mountain and the Obstinate Drawer are accepted (if occasionally annoying) members of the family because the bags are undeniably handy. Without them, I’d be without a lifetime supply of free trashcan liners; worse, I’d have to find a new solution for getting wet bathing suits home. But their proliferation everywhere has become a problem, and the convenience of the free bags is not worth the excess and waste. For every bag that is carefully reused as a bicycle seat rain-shield, there are thousands that make their way into our natural environment.
The Vineyard Conservation Society is proposing to eliminate the single-use, disposable plastic bag on Martha’s Vineyard. We are targeting these bags because very few are re-used (though we know that many exceptions may be found among VCS members), and they are unsuitable for recycling. Our local waste haulers (Bruno’s and the MV Refuse District) do not accept them in their recycling streams. While some major supermarket chains do take them back, less than 3% are returned by consumers, and much of that collected material is not actually recycled. (To recycle one ton of bags costs about $4000; the resulting product can be sold for around $32.) The primary purpose of supermarket recycling programs is some combination of legitimate litter management and savvy public relations.
The invention of the disposable plastic bag was a feat of chemical engineering: they are amazingly light, able to carry many times their own weight, and so, so very cheap to manufacture. But this very lightness makes them a nightmare for waste management. They catch easily in the wind, blowing out of trash cans, trucks, and landfills, coming to rest in our oceans and trees. And with cheapness comes abundance: nationwide, 10% of coastal debris is plastic bags. Here on our relatively pristine Island, plastic bags commonly adorn osprey nests (and occasionally their necks – see photo). They are so common we mostly stop seeing them. But since I began researching this issue I have collected and photographed the bags from the Gay Head Cliffs to Edgartown Harbor – with many schoolyards, soccer fields, beaches, and roadsides in between.
But as unpleasant as they may be when strewn about the beach and dunes, the bags truly wreak havoc once they enter the ocean. They kill fish, turtles, and marine mammals, and photo-degrade into tiny particles called microplastics that travel up the food chain. (I will assume that low-density polyethylene was not what you ordered with your pan-seared tuna.) As Islanders, we derive so much from the ocean: we eat from it and play on it; many of us, at least in part, count on it for our livelihood. I believe we have a duty to be at the forefront of protection for this powerful, but fragile body that supports and defines us.
There is also a financial cost to the abundance of these bags, and not just in the lost tourism value when bags float through someone’s beach day or sunset picnic. The cost for handling a ton of recycling has now surpassed that of a ton of trash, a potential crisis for community recycling programs. The number one contributor to the cost increase due to contamination of the recycling stream is plastic bags. The bags also cost us when we pay our town workers to pick them up.
There are hundreds of communities in the US that have already passed ordinances banning these bags. Just last year Falmouth became the eleventh town in Massachusetts to pass a bag ban, and many more, including Truro and Chatham, are working on it. We are hardly revolutionary on this one I’m afraid; Nantucket did it 25 years ago.
What those existing ordinances tell us is that the bans work. In every community, concerns are raised about inconvenience to shoppers and harm to local businesses, but once enacted the bans have not proven to do either. What does happen is that consumers change their habits, pollution is drastically reduced, and valuable natural resources and community financial resources are saved. In reality, it’s a pretty small adaptation – many of us are already accustomed to bringing reusable bags when we go shopping.
We believe that getting rid of plastic bags is part of an important and worthwhile effort to take care of our Island home. More broadly, it makes a statement that we care, and that we expect our visitors to do the same – a sentiment we hope goes beyond shopping bags and influences the small choices each of us makes to help protect this place we love.