“Just because plastic is disposable,” says Salem City Councilor Laura Tesler, “doesn’t mean it goes away.” Tesler has seen the tragic impact of single-use plastic bags first hand. A fisheries biologist who has dove in waters around the world since 2005, Tesler has found bags stuck on seaweed underwater, hundreds or thousands of miles from their source, where “they look like jellyfish” and can be eaten by sea turtles, fish and birds, causing suffering and death.
Tesler spoke before a crowd that attended a July 31 Loucks Auditorium screening of “Bag It!” an award-winning documentary about the dangers of plastic bags on the environment.
“We need to make some decisions on what we want for our community,” Tesler said. She told the group that she and others from Environment Oregon would be attending neighborhood association meetings in effort to build support for a local ban.
The ban would mean that no retailer could any longer offer single-use plastic bags at checkout stands – only recycled paper (probably, at a cost of 5 cents,) and reusable ones. If it went into effect, Salem would join Eugene, Corvallis and Portland, plus 7 cities in Washington State and over 70 communities in California. The effort is supported by the NW Grocery Association, whose members include Safeway, Fred Meyer and Roth’s, among others.
The screening event was organized by Environment Oregon, a citizen-based environmental advocacy group with thousands of members in town and 30,000 statewide, as part of an effort to ban the use of single-use plastic bags in Salem. It’s a movement that makes sense, says Sarah J. Higginbotham, State Director of Environment Oregon. “Nothing we use for a few moments should be allowed to pollute our waterways and oceans for hundreds of years,” she told the crowd, to applause.
Oregonians use an estimated 1.7 billion plastic checkout bags every year (that’s 444 per person,) objects that take over 100 years to photo-degrade, carry toxins like pesticides and PCBs and pose serious threats to marine wildlife. Without the ability to understand the look and strength of plastic bags, sea animals die from strangulation, suffocation, and starvation.
“Plastic litter kills millions of marine animals and seabirds every year,” according to a United Nations 2011 report.
While many consumers believe single-use bags can be recycled at bins in supermarkets, this may no longer be the case in Oregon. Formerly, those bags were shipped to overseas, most often to China, but in recent months China, and many of its recycling partners in Oregon announced that they will no longer accept them. Neither Marion County’s Salem-Keizer Transfer Station nor Portland’s Far West Fibers take the bags at this time.
It is quite possible that soon there will literally be no place for Oregon’s single-use plastic bags – toxic, dangerous and unboidegradeable – to go.
Audubon Society has signed on its support for the “ban-the-bag” movement. Ray Temple, Salem Audubon Society treasurer and Board of Directors member, shared his personal thoughts on the matter, saying, “With Marion County no longer able to dispose of film plastics to a recycler, all the local bags are headed for the garbage burner. Plastic bags are made from petrochemicals; they end up in the garbage stream or in the environment, and they cause damage to wildlife.
Michael Roth, President of Roth’s Fresh Markets, our Mid-Willamette Valley supermarket, tells us his stores, which pay 5 cents to shoppers who bring their own bags and offer paper as well as plastic at check out, have already switched to green tinted plastic bags which are made with resin that is sourced from 100% recycled plastic.
Roth will be watching the local ban-the-bag movement with interest. He says, “Roth’s focuses on selling groceries and providing great customer service. We leave these issues to the city council, for them to gather all the data, weigh the pros and cons and make their decisions on plastic bags and other issues.”
Higginbotham is “excited by the great enthusiasm demonstrated” by the citizens of Salem. “The enthusiasm at the screening of “Bag It” was huge—nearly everyone signed a petition, shared other groups or businesses we should reach out to, and felt strong support for the issue. Talking with folks by the farmers market, [we] collected another 60 petitions in just about an hour. It’s more clear than ever that Salem citizens care deeply about protecting the environment.” She believes that, as the third largest city in the State, a plastic bag ban in Salem will make a big impact.
“Incrementally,” Salem Audubon’s Temple concludes, “every jurisdiction that reduces use of throw-away plastics moves us further toward reducing world-wide environmental pollution.”