OPINION | Paper or plastic?

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HOW many of you remember that friendly greeting at the check-out? Probably not many, since paper bags generally went the way of the Model “T” Ford many years ago.

Those non-biodegradable, land-scape smothering, but ever so handy “ultra-thin” poly bags have taken over — literally. And now, Sen. Vinnie Sablan has decided the island has had enough and has introduced Senate Bill No. 21-37: “The Single Use Act of 2019.” The act creates an outright ban on the issuance of all plastic “single-use bags” from all “businesses” in the NMI immediately after enactment; supposedly to protect the environment. But will it have its intended purpose?

If you haven’t already read the act, before commenting about this letter, go to (http://www.cnmileg.gov.mp/documents/senate/sen_bills/21/SB21-37.PDF) and read it.

Is such an outright ban really necessary? The answer is no. Such bans are arbitrary and, in a democratic society, tend to render a public reaction that somehow our government has now stepped into the realm of autocracy and all over our rights (and privileges) of freedom of choice; in this case, our freedom to choose to affect our environment by the use of an admittedly ubiquitous agent — those pesky little bags. So, what better choices might there be besides making criminals out of every business in the NMI and possibly even you and me?

First, some facts:

The ultra-thin plastic “check-out” bags used to carry your shopping home comprises less than TWO percent of the plastic you bring home. The other 98% consists of the packaging used around all the shopping you bring home and, in many cases, the products themselves. These include food and beverage containers and product packaging — many times multi-layered packaging and let’s not forget all that Styrofoam (A separate “ban” now proposed on that, too). It also includes the ultra-thins you use at the produce counter to keep your lettuce, fruits and onions, for instance, from rolling all over the shopping basket, each other, the check-out counter, the car and possibly even the floor!

Those poly bags are usually re-used in the home for garbage containment, pet droppings and other household chores and waste, thus negating the need to purchase separate disposal “holders” for household “stuff”; “holders” that are usually made of plastic themselves (such as yard bags or kitchen garbage bags) and create an added expense to the home-owner. If the “check-out” bags you now bring home were no longer available, you’d need to purchase something to hold all that household trash — thus the effect on our landfill by this substitution would be NADA. The plastic would still be there – just a different and LARGER bag.

Generally, plastic bags are non-biodegradable and persist in the environment for a long time, but not necessarily in their original form. These plastics will become brittle and break into tiny pieces under normal sunlight — but this is even worse as these tiny pieces tend to get ingested by all sorts of things, including U.S.

Second, some pro’s and con’s of using “green” bags (well, mostly cons):

So-called “green” bags don’t litter the landscape because they are re-used by their owner for many shopping trips — or do they? Unless you purchase an extremely durable, and expensive bag, it will wear out after several uses and need to be discarded — but where? Imagine having to cope with several thousand discarded “green” bags after a few months.

You must remember to bring your “green” bags with you every time you go shopping. Leave it in the car and it will collect dust and also deteriorate from the heat, leading to an unhealthy bag for your contents. If you forget them at home, you will need to purchase a new one for all those items you just lugged to the checkout. Stores don’t give them away; they’re just too expensive, usually anywhere from 50 cents to more than a buck each. It takes time for someone to get used to remembering that bag whenever you go shopping.

“Green” bags are harder for store clerks, or you, to pack with purchases. Studies in the U.S. And Australia have indicated that it can take anywhere from 20% to 100% longer to pack than a typical plastic bag. Australia has calculated that this could cost Australian businesses nearly $41 million in lost efficiency and time.

“Green” bags, especially the heavy-duty cotton ones, are unhealthy for you. Many food products such as meats and chicken (frozen or fresh) tend to “leak” juices through the packaging (plastic, again) thus soaking into the “green” bag. The same with a broken egg for instance. These food residues will easily become a reservoir for bacteria and other contaminates that can then easily be cross handled to the next usage of the bags’ contents — and then to you, possibly making you very ill. So, you must remember to keep your “green” bags clean at all times, thus costing you extra for that cleaning.

What about a return to “paper” bags, especially the “made-from-recycled-products” bags? These are somewhat OK and can be re-used a few times before they tear apart — unless you get it wet, either in the rain or from food leakage, then it’s instant goodbye whether it’s still full of shopping or not! And did you know that these bags cost the manufacturer (and the user) 500 per cent MORE (than plastic) to make? And they use up ten times more natural resources to make? That’s why you don’t see stores asking you “paper or plastic?” anymore. If you want paper, you’ll have to BUY it! At least paper degrades easily to a non-harmful state.

S. B. 21-37, as written, ALLOWS for the use of “durable plastic bags at least 3 mils thick.” These bags are nothing more than the same plastic shopping bags with handles that you get when shopping at a high end “fancy” store (where most of us can’t afford to go). They do deteriorate rapidly, good for not much more than five or so uses before you must discard it — without even being able to use it for household trash. If you leave them in your car, they’ll be useless in a few days. I bring this up for two reasons: first, these bags are even more difficult to handle in the environment and persist many times longer than the ultra-thins, and, second, most of the businesses in the NMI get their bags from China or Korea and shop for the cheapest ones available. These 3 mil bags ARE the “cheapest ones available” (of the required strength), so do you think the stores in the NMI will opt for the expensive cloth ones that only a few people will buy if given a choice, or the cheaper ones? Thus, our environment will be even worse off than before. No matter which bag the store opts for, YOU will still have to buy it; stores just can’t afford to absorb the additional cost. This seems to be a major contradiction in a new law that is supposed to protect the environment from the very same bags.

So, how do we solve this dilemma reasonably? There are several ways, and all of them require that stores and the public be pushed GENTLY and GRADUALLY toward lessening the use of plastic while NONE of them create outright bans that just don’t work.

For instance, Ireland has seen a reduction in plastic bag use from 300 per person per year to only 21 per person per year by imposing a 15% TAX on the bags themselves.

Taxes, as such, should be levied on the end user, not the business, thus gently persuading the public that it is better to invest in “green” technology than to pay for another piece of plastic — gradually. If the shopper opts to use a store-furnished plastic bag, the store would then be required to add on a “tax” to the customer’s bill — a tax that increases every few months. Believe me, an enterprising public WILL find better substitutes for those taxed plastic bags — on their own.

The taxes collected could be used directly for the installation and maintenance of “plastic bag collection points” around the island. Couple this with strict regulations making disposal of the ultra-thins a littering violation (it actually already is) along with proper enforcement and you will thus emplace tools to move the public in the right direction. Small fines collected from “littering tickets” can also go to the collection centers. Thereby, the “users” are the ones paying for the cleanup, not the “greener” crowd.

The government could also consider using a portion of the taxes collected to “subsidize” the purchase of “green” bags or as a “reward” for those who consistently use “green” bags — just remember to keep your “green” bag CLEAN! As the public moves toward increasing “green” bag usage, taxes (and littering) will produce less and less income, but the income won’t be needed for collection centers if there are no more plastics to be collected.

The point of all this is that, no matter what action you take, there are consequences and downsides — we just have to pick the path that has the least downside and the greatest benefit to the public without making life insufferable — or criminals out of otherwise good people. I urge Senator Sablan to withdraw this bill, go back to the drawing board, do some basic research first, and then write a bill that will have the proper effect and results. It IS worth the effort for this noble cause; the one Sen. Sablan presented, however, shows little or no effort (a mere cut-and-paste of the failed 2008 bill), a complete disregard for the consequences and simply takes “the easy way out.”

In summary, one un-known blogger has stated: “Fashionable ‘green’ bags are nothing more than a ‘lite’ remedy for the conscience of those who may not do much else for the planet than carry a trendy bag full of groceries out to the waiting SUV, engine running, empty, but with the air-con on to keep it nice and cool.”

Besides, at this point in time, doesn’t the CNMI Senate have more important things to do?

The writer is a former resident of San Jose, Tinian.

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