As I distribute reusable produce and tote bags at the Fairfax County Farmers Markets during National Farmers Market Week, I often get asked about why Fairfax County has not banned plastic bags or taxed their use like many other jurisdictions around the world.
- The first problem is that many people are not aware of the extent of the problem caused by plastic bags. In addition to being left as litter, because they are lightweight, plastic bags often fly out of trash cans and trucks, and also escape out of landfills. And, according to most estimates, in part because they are recycled separately from other plastics, only 1% of them ever make it to a recycling center.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags. One out of every ten items picked up in an International Coastal Cleanup in 2009 was a plastic bag.
Locally, Clean Fairfax’s monitoring of two 100 foot stream segments as part of our Clean Streams Initiative showed alarming results: Our Quander Brook monitoring site, which receives stormwater runoff from a Walmart shopping center, had 136 plastic bags just six weeks after the site had been completely cleaned. On Little Hunting Creek, runoff from a high density residential area of apartments left 92 plastic bags three months after that site’s cleanup.
And plastic bags kill wildlife: Entrapment, ingestion, and leaching as these bags photodegrade wreaks havoc on plant and animal life, particularly as bags float from our streams into the ocean.
- Another problem with trying to get legislation to stem the tide of plastic bag pollution is that in VA there is the Dillon Rule which does not allow a local jurisdiction to create a ban or tax. While plastic bag legislation has been raised at the Virginia Statehouse, it has not passed. Strong business lobbies oppose it, and many legislators don’t want to ruffle constituent feathers with a perceived inconvenience.
So, it is up to individuals to make the eco-friendly choice by bringing reusable bags to every shopping experience—and to let their state representatives know that they want legislation that will help keep plastic bags out of our streams and oceans.