In addition to the huge amounts of plastic being swept onto beaches, Ehrlich said, vast floating dumps of discarded plastic are growing at sea. It’s “the great garbage patch. ... In the Pacific, there is a plastic soup the size of two Texases.”
On land, the bags collect everywhere and can be a menace clogging storm drains. Recycling them is too expensive, Ehrlich said.
Some communities are already acting. Ehrlich ticks off a list of plastic bag bans, including in Manchester-by-the-Sea; Austin, Texas; and Hawaii, where, one by one, each island has independently made the flimsy containers taboo.
So, how should people bring their groceries home?
“Paper bags are fine,” Ehrlich said. “They can be recycled. The best thing you can do is bring your own reusable bags.”
The reaction among her fellow legislators has been encouraging, Ehrlich said. “I’m hearing quite a bit of positive feedback.”
On the other hand, Jon Hurst of the Massachusetts Retailers Association opposes the measure. He suggests that the alternatives to plastic have problems of their own. Reusable cloth bags, he noted, have been found to collect bacteria, including deadly salmonella. Paper bags are more expensive, with the cost passed on to consumers.
“Paper bags don’t degrade very fast,” Hurst said. “Paper bags take a whole lot more energy to make; they require a lot more water and a lot more trees to produce.”
Banning plastic, Hurst continued, “isn’t necessarily a pro-consumer thing to do.”
The plastic bags handed out by the supermarket get a lot of secondary use, in trash barrels, for example, to wrap recyclables or even to attend to pet waste.
As to the masses of plastic garbage in the ocean, Hurst questioned how much of that can be traced to plastic bags.
“In our experience dealing with consumers, they like to have options,” he said. “... If you ban them, you’re forcing people to buy bags.”