Single-use plastics clog our waste stream; pollute our waterways; kill shore birds, fish, turtles and other wildlife; and threaten human health, but the last attempt to do anything meaningful about them in Massachusetts got similarly bogged down in the sausage-making of the Legislature. Rep. Lori Ehrlich’s resurrected, still-unsullied plan to stop the use of single-use plastic bags at convenience stores and groceries springs anew on Beacon Hill, where her colleagues would be wise to keep it intact and enact it.

Ehrlich’s bag ban would apply statewide, replacing local bans already set in place in 141 cities and towns, including many on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley. Her bill would allow retailers to charge a 10-cent fee for reusable, recycled paper bags. Consumers are always free to use reusable totes to carry away the goods and groceries that they purchase.

The last time this idea had any traction — and the support of nearly 100 lawmakers — it was beaten out of shape by one of the Legislature’s many secretive committees and thus lost momentum. The only sure way at the time to address the scourge of single-use plastic appeared to be in watching local bans continue to spread across the landscape.

Since then we’ve faced a pandemic, which prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to temporarily halt local bag bans in light of fears that one of their go-to replacements, reusable totes, could carry the coronavirus. Grocers were worried about their workers. But evidence in the months that followed showed the disease doesn’t spread on surfaces as much as once thought, and in July, those interim rules were allowed to expire.

In the meantime, our collective problem with plastics has not subsided. If anything, Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, tells Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade the pandemic has only made it worse.

It’s no illusory concern. Every man, woman and child in the United States can be counted on to use more than 300 plastic shopping bags every year, according to research compiled by the Sierra Club. Each single-use bag is good for about 12 minutes before it’s tossed. After that, the plastic lingers in the atmosphere — too often at a waste dump, in the woods or in the oceans — for hundreds of years.

Think of that the next time you leave the market. And maybe take a few minutes with your bags because unless you recycle them they’re almost sure to outlive you on this planet.

That’s because bags don’t break down so much as break apart, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. Which is to say they degrade into smaller and smaller bits of plastic, eventually turning into microscopic fragments that are suspended in the water, eaten and absorbed by animals, and eventually processed into our own bodies, where they pose a whole host of health risks.

We are literally wrapping our world and ourselves in plastic.

Ehrlich cites a paper by the World Economic Forum that predicts a single ton of plastic will pollute the oceans for every three tons of fish within the next four years. Within the next 30 years, it’s expected that there will be more human-generated plastics in the oceans by weight than there are fish.

If that wasn’t reason enough to make other plans to carry away your purchases, there are logistical reasons to consider as well. As Wade reports, an industry group that represents supermarkets says a single statewide ban on single-use bags would be far preferable at this point to rules that vary by community. Let’s adopt one standard instead of living within a patchwork of 141 of them.

Each of us has an obligation to our environment and to the generations that follow. Filling the world’s woods and reservoirs, not to mention our own bodies, with plastics is poor stewardship and a poor legacy.

Recycling single-use plastic whenever possible is an important step. So is finding alternatives to carry away our purchases from the store, even if that means paying a dime for a paper bag to use in place of a plastic one. Enacting that as a matter of statewide policy would represent real progress toward dealing with this intractable problem.


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