Looking both ways and going forward

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Turning The Tides column has been coming out every Sunday for the past three months. So far, we've discussed the importance of oceans for all things living, and to us personally. We've talked about plastics and what they are doing to aquatic and terrestrial environments, numerous dangers of plastics to humans and other animals, the persistence of plastics in nature. We have also provided thoughts on how to minimize the use of disposable plastics and what other communities are doing about it. Come to think of it, almost all the plastics ever made and discarded in landfills, forests, oceans, anywhere, still exist in one form or another.

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We've received great feedback from our readers, readers from all walks of life - scientists, professionals, fishermen, naturalists, and other concerned citizens. We have also been challenged by plastic bag manufacturers but successfully defended our position. Several readers wrote to us with their concerns that publicizing the toxic effects of certain plastics when incorporated into marine food chains could potentially have a negative impact on fish consumption and the fishing industry. Unfortunately, it is a very legitimate concern, but the sooner we start working on mitigating the problem of disposable plastics, the better chances we have of decreasing or preventing serious consequences from them.

And a real chance to do something about this is coming up soon. Two bills will be introduced during the upcoming legislative session, House Bill 230 by Rep. Andrea Doll and Senate Bill 118 by Sen. Kim Elton. The companion bills will call for "an act establishing a fee for disposable plastic bags distributed by retail sellers of goods or services to consumers to carry away or protect goods."

In essence, these bills will levy a 15-cent fee on every plastic bag dispensed in stores, thereby presenting a much more effective encouragement to do without plastic bags than the two- or three-cent credit that many stores currently award for bringing your own bags.

I have heard concerns that it should remain the consumers' free choice whether they want to accept plastic bags or bring their own reusable bags. However, we all suffer the grave consequences of discarded plastic bags, and thus should all be held responsible for their use and disposal. The growing number of those conscientious enough not to use plastic bags still bear the enormous environmental and health costs associated with these bags. Shouldn't we all have the choice to live in a clean, unpolluted environment? The 15-cent fee on plastic bags seems to be a step in the right direction.

And the precedence proving the effectiveness of plastic bag fees has already been set around the globe. In Ireland, to give one example, such a fee was introduced in 2001, and "that measure reduced consumption of plastic bags by 90 percent ... Similarly, HB 230 would establish a small fee of 15 cents per plastic bag dispensed in Alaska. It is anticipated the Alaska experience will be similar to the Irish experience ... As plastic bag consumption drops, ... [so] would the financial and environmental costs of dealing with huge numbers of discarded plastic bags" (HB 230 online sponsor statement).

For the bills to pass, we need you, concerned citizens from around the state, to contact your legislators, explaining to them the problems of disposable plastic bags and informing them that you want their support for the bills. This is truly a golden opportunity that should not be missed, but we need to start acting now. Turning The Tides has made this issue its priority. We believe this piece of legislature would have a tremendously beneficial effect for all Alaskans. If you are interested in supporting the campaign to pass the companion bills, visit our Web site for more information and to see sample letters, a list of legislators, and dates of our upcoming meetings - all the ins and out of how to go about championing the bills. Our online information kit will be accessible by early January.

To paraphrase a statement I came across somewhere on the Web: What kind of a society do we live in that considers exploring for and extracting oil, transporting it to refineries, converting it to plastics, manufacturing disposable plastic products and finally transporting them to stores, cheaper and more convenient than using reusable shopping bags, utensils and water containers?

• Mihael Blikshteyn is a fishery biologist, a freelance photographer, and a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally-friendly living and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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