Editorial: Plastic bags and inconvenience

When former U.S. Vice President Al Gore titled his 2006 book and documentary on global warming An Inconvenient Truth, he touched on a common theme of these modern times: so many of the conveniences that make living easy — fossil fuels, cars, airplanes, plastics, chemicals, and on and on — have a dark side we often discover belatedly.
It has taken the world the better part of 40 years to recognize the threat to the world poised by the burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And only now, 18 years after it was first a major issue in a presidential debate in 2002, Al Gore vs. George W. Bush, is the American public (Trump’s idiocy aside) — and much of the world — collectively understanding the dangers that lie ahead if we don’t act to reverse the tide.
In politics, progress can be a slow and frustrating process.
Hopefully, the movement to reverse the tide of plastic waste in our oceans won’t take as long.
As an issue, it’s easier to see the destruction caused, more difficult for scientists or laypeople to deny the negative impact, and perhaps easier to portray through photos the harm caused. And, most importantly, the inconvenience to our lives will be relatively benign. We’ll use paper bags instead of plastic — or better yet, reusable cloth handbags — and that’ the sum of it.
Inconvenient? Sure. That’s why plastic bags came into use; they don’t occasionally rip and spill the eggs over the pavement, and it’s easier to carry more for longer distances in a single trek.
But it was presented as a consumer option without a downside. Now that the downside is known, the slight inconvenience is easy to justify.
But let’s be quick about it. Organizers of a petition to ban single-use plastic bags in Middlebury put the annual local consumption of single-use plastic bags at 4,513,500 annually — a rate of 513 bags per person per year. (See story on Page 1.) Worse yet, about 9 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, leading to a scenario in which there could be “more plastic in the ocean than fish” ton-per-ton, by 2050. That’s not just a disturbing image it’s also one of the leading causes of death to sea life.
Add plastic straws to the list, and let’s pass a local resolution to make it voluntary — but let’s not stop there. Along with others throughout the country, let’s consider legislation to phase out the use of single-use plastic bags, and just maybe, we adopt a culture that considers the long-term impact of novelty items before they become a detriment to society.

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