Ye ol' plastic not seen in Ireland

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By Sylvia Brockner

Our friend Karel Buckley brought us an article recently from the New York Times on littering that was especially concerned with the use of plastic shopping bags. It contained some very pertinent information and reminded me of the early days of recycling here in Colorado.

When we moved here in 1965, I put all our labeled recycling containers in a row on the carport. A few days later, when a lady from the welcome wagon arrived at my door, she asked, “What are the containers for?” I was surprised, but I explained they were my recycling containers. To which she replied, “ Lots of luck; there isn’t any recycling here.”

Now, 43 years later, there is a big improvement, but it’s still not as good as it might be. We have a very good recycling center as close as Bergen Park. It is always busy, but about half the people I talk to still “can’t be bothered” with recycling.

Plastic products are one of the worst forms of litter because it is not biodegradable. It is also so light that it blows on the wind. I remember being amazed when we were in the Arctic, well out on the tundra, even in the most remote places, where we saw few if any people, we still saw plastic egg and light bulb cartons blown in on the wind.

Now, it seems plastic shopping bags are the culprits that are littering the earth. In the month of January, almost 42 million plastic bags were used worldwide, and that figure increases by half a million bags every minute. Somehow, I had not realized they were being used so universally and had become such a worldwide problem.

There is now a worldwide movement to stop the use of plastic shopping bags to put an end to this particular form of litter. Most places this is still voluntary, but in Ireland it is not. Ireland, it seems has set an example for the rest of the world and passed a law requiring a 33-cent charge per bag at the cash register. With in a week, the use of plastic bags dropped 94 percent.

Everyone in Ireland is using reusable cloth bags and/or backpacks to carry their goods. It has become socially unacceptable to use plastic bags. Other countries around the world have tried other means such as requiring stores that use plastic bags to take them back for recycling, but such measures have been less effective.

Only in Ireland has it worked well because the tax is universal, so everyone must abide by it; therefore the customer is not able to go to another competitor that still uses free plastic bags.

It is illegal for shopkeepers to pay the tax on the bags themselves and then give the bags away free to their customers. Any tax revenue received by the government is used for environmental enforcement and cleanup programs, and furthermore the environmental minister has told shopkeepers that if they change over to paper bags, he will tax these bags, too. Therefore, the Irish have accepted it wholeheartedly.

Customers say they just won’t use plastic. If they forget cloth bags, they say they would rather just put their purchases loose in the “boot” of their car than use plastic. It is socially taboo to be seen with a plastic shopping bag, as unacceptable as not cleaning up after one’s dog. Which, of course, makes me wonder, do they still use a plastic bag for that? It would seem that would be one justifiable use, but they are not flushable, so they must still go to the landfill, albeit in greatly reduced numbers.

Certainly, it seems we must do something about these bags that present a worldwide litter problem. It seems national laws are the only thing that work, for anything less is unfair to someone. If we do not regulate them, we will soon all be drowning in a sea of plastic, for it does not go away.

We probably need to get rid of unnecessary plastic shopping bags to save room in our landfills for the many worn-out or broken things made of plastic. Having worked with anti-littering campaigns for more than 60 years, there is only one thing I think I know for sure: Littering or anti-littering is something you learn as a child. If you learn to pick up after yourself as a child, you usually will do so for the rest of your life. If you learn to throw things away, leaving the litter for others, you will probably do so for the rest of your life.

Litter is not someone else’s responsibility. If everyone would just clean up after themselves, there would be no litter. It’s that simple.

The good news this week is that Margie Wing reported hearing her first mountain bluebird warbling in their meadow last Tuesday, Feb. 12. More on that next week.