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Aug 19th
Plastic Pileup for the Ages PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
August 2019

It’s time to ante up if we won’t break the habit

Abigstock-Plastic-pollution-problem--Se-231605446mong the admirable characteristics of Miami Shores villagers, our emphasis on a “green” ethos ranks high on the list. Sure, our carbon footprint in sprawling, car-dependent South Florida is probably a notch above the national average. And being a relatively affluent community means we consume more than what would constitute a “basic need.”

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good…or green.

In the past few years, we’ve tried to rein in the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides by moving to a more sustainable “integrated pest management” protocol for public spaces.

This is also a community that actively took to a solar power co-op that pooled multiple homeowners to buy discounted residential solar systems.

There have been moves to make the village more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, taming the Miami driver who disregards not just traffic laws but the laws of physics. Lime Bike didn’t work out, but it was a worthy endeavor nonetheless.

Our Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Green Day street festival that tries to marry the dollar-green of private enterprise with what is ecologically green. We even now allow front-yard vegetable gardens, although it took a court battle to make it happen. In fact, now there’s a state law to allow them. Little Miami Shores, in its own perverse way of overreacting to one resident’s front-yard garden, acted as a catalyst so that now all Floridians can grow veggies in their front yards.

Of late, the village, led by the activism of Councilman Jonathan Meltz, is taking aim at single-use plastic bags. You know, the ones you get at Publix, Walgreens, or Target that you use for about 12 minutes and then throw away. The ones that can live on for anywhere from a couple of decades to hundreds of years (the science is imprecise on how fast plastic breaks down), slowly degrading in a landfill or our oceans.

To fully grasp the huge problem with plastic bags -- let’s make that single-use plastic bags -- we need to delve into some basics.

Plastic bags, or just plastic itself, really, begins as a fossil fuel. The petroleum you pump into your car is the same product as the Publix plastic bag. Driven by giant retailer use, we Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags a year, or about 1500 per household. Those bags required the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. According to the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, it takes about 14 plastic bags for the equivalent of the gas required to drive your car one mile. Go ahead, jam plastic bags into your gas tank and see what happens.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that only a minuscule percentage (about one percent) of plastic bags is recycled -- again, once used, it is here with us…well…almost forever. The Center for Biological Diversity notes an EPA finding that “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”

In addition, if the plastic bags do make it to our Mt. Trashmores, in a way, that’s a partial victory. Plastic bags go from an inconvenient nuisance on land to environmental hazard in our seas. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that hundreds of sea species have been adversely impacted by plastic bag pollution in our oceans. Hundreds of thousands are killed after they get tangled up in plastic bags or ingest them.

Then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of plastic debris on earth, which has been identified in the north-central Pacific Ocean. Imagine taking Mexico’s land mass, covering it with plastic, uplifting it and then plopping that mass, and all its small, even microscopic particles, into the Pacific Ocean. Now you get an idea of the scale of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Unlike organic materials that biodegrade, plastic photo-degrades, and just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits of without changing its chemistry.

Into this morass, Councilman Jonathan Meltz has hosted two plastic reduction workshops. Frustrated with the lack of productive dialogue with Publix in reducing plastic bag usage, Meltz brought the item before the Village Council for discussion. Councilman Stephen Loffredo recalled how he’d gone down by the bay after playing some baseball in Morningside Park, only to be confronted with “plastic Armageddon.” As with attendees at the previous workshops, there was total support for the Meltz’s goals, but a spirited discussion on how to implement change.

Meltz, who is hesitant about calling for a total ban, suggests a bag fee of 10 to 15 cents as a way to nudge consumers to switch to reusable cloth bags. Monies generated would then be dedicated to village environmental projects and education efforts. The “how” question is the sticky wicket. Clearly, the Village would benefit if businesses voluntarily comply, but having a code officer inside Publix seeing if cashiers collect cents on bags distributed is a non-starter.

There is the possibility of placing the fee on the business’s bulk purchases of bags at the front end and then hoping that incentivizes the enterprise into passing the costs onto the consumer. Smaller businesses would more likely seek to recoup their costs, whereas larger behemoths like Publix might just swallow the costs and ask nothing of the consumer. Hence no change in behavior occurs.

However, this is where public policy and consumer action might merge into a virtuous outcome. The 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein promotes the concept of “libertarian paternalism.” Understanding that people in general want to be left alone from governmental dictates, the trick is then how to devise policies that encourage folks to voluntarily make choices that serve the public good. Nudging people to change their behavior in using reusable bags by charging them for single-use bags may be enough.

In fact, we have a real-life example right before our very noses. The no-frills Aldi market, right up the street from Publix, charges buyers for plastic and paper bags. The result? Almost nobody purchases the store’s single-use bags, opting to bring their own bags or even using discarded cardboard containers to transport their groceries. Aldi (which I like to think occupies the area between food pantry and grocery store) has thus been judged by Greenpeace as the greenest grocery store in a recent survey, with Publix way down the list.

And herein lies the solution. Consumers can reward the Aldis of the world for being good environmental stewards and shun Publix. While policies like the one Meltz promotes will nudge the plastic polluters of the world to do the right thing, the consumer’s purchasing power has the strength to shove them.

 

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