by Whit Gibbons

May 17, 2015

Isle of Palms, a barrier island north of Charleston, has two notable distinctions I appreciate that are seldom if ever found in the same place. First, the island is noted for being one of the locations in the Southeast where Texas horned lizards have been introduced and now thrive. The second is that Isle of Palms is considering banning single-use plastic bags.

Plastic bags are a scourge wherever they end up, which includes in oceans, lakes and wildlife. Dramatic deaths from the consumption of plastic bags have been reported in leatherback sea turtles, seals and whales. The bags are swallowed and then clog the digestive system. Plastic bags are a poor diet for any animal. And the greenish slime that collects on and in discarded bags as they float just beneath the surface of a lake in a city park or waterway is beyond unsightly.

Remember a few years ago when we brought groceries home in a big brown paper sack? Today we stuff everything from fresh fruit to dog food into those little plastic bags with the carrying straps. We then use the bags at home to hold everything from cat litter to lunch for the office. We cannot live without these plastic bags, which we were told during the paper to plastic transition would be environmentally prudent. We would no longer have to cut down trees to make the paper bags. The rationale given for substituting plastic for paper seemed practical in many ways. And it still would be if people didn't throw the bags away indiscriminately.

One estimate is that a staggering half a trillion plastic grocery bags are produced each year. Today so many plastic bags have been discarded into the environment worldwide that if we filled half of them with pennies we could pay off the national debt. For people concerned with U.S. dependency on foreign oil, more than 10 million barrels of oil are necessary to make the plastic bags used in the country each year.

Many environmental problems would be readily solved if we made people pay to pollute. To the point at hand, I am opposed to strictly banning what could be a useful product. Instead, we should allow people to use all the plastic bags they want, as long as they pay for them and don't discard them outside of a garbage can. If plastic bags cost money, I suspect most prudent citizens would not be throwing them out of their car window or leaving them on a park bench. Most would use them again (except, of course, for those containing cat litter).

Other countries have implemented plans to attack the excessive use of plastic bags. Ireland instituted a personal tax of about a quarter for the use of a plastic bag. Not surprisingly plastic bag consumption decreased by more than 90 percent. The Irish simply stepped up recycling and rediscovered less wasteful ways to carry small items. Scotland and Wales likewise charge a fee for a plastic bag. South Africa passed legislation to fine retailers who provided unrecyclable plastic bags. Taiwan has regulatory procedures that curtail plastic bag use in most shops and stores. Why shouldn't we do likewise?

The United States is clearly the world leader on myriad issues, many of which we should be proud of. But for others we should be ashamed. If an Olympic sport were designed for a competition between countries that had done the most to prevent pollution on a global basis, we might not even qualify to participate, let alone come anywhere near winning even a bronze medal. Imagine Ireland, Taiwan and South Africa receiving their Olympic medals while Americans watching the event eat lunch in the stands then carelessly toss away their plastic bags.

The next time I am looking for horned lizards on Isle of Palms, I hope I'll see more of them on the ground than I do plastic bags.

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