Is Michigan’s Ban on Plastic Bag Bans Bad News for Waterways?

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In 2016, a wave of plastic bag bans took effect across the country. In New York City, the city council approved a 5-cent fee, and the Massachusetts State Senate approved a 10-cent fee for paper bags and a ban on plastic bags. In California, voters saved a statewide ban on plastic bags that was under threat. Amid all this momentum to can the disposable plastic bag habit, Michigan went the other way, passing a law last month to become the fourth state — after Idaho, Arizona and Missouri — to prohibit such bans on plastic bags and other types of disposable packaging.

This law keeps local ordinances from “regulating the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers,” which includes plastic bags, Styrofoam containers and disposable carryout food containers. In other words, a state with nearly 3,300 miles of shoreline and close to 10 million inhabitants is preventing local governments from limiting the use of many common forms of trash.

Although this legislation was seen as bad news by many, the Michigan Restaurant Association voiced its support in a recent statement. “With many of our members owning and operating locations across the state, preventing a patchwork approach of additional regulations is imperative to avoid added complexities as it related to day-to-day business operations,’’ said Robert O’Meara, vice president of government affairs for the organization.

O’Meara does raise a valid concern for restaurant chains that operate in numerous cities or states. However, laws governing other business practices, such as limitations on the sale of alcohol or the rate of sales tax, already vary within states. Although banning bags and disposable takeout packaging would present logical concerns, preventing bans isn’t in the public’s best interest.

Plastic and the Coasts

Michigan borders Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and it is important that Michigan has policies and practices that promote water quality. Given that the Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and they are a vital source of drinking water, Michigan’s participation in protecting these natural treasures is essential. The state’s tourism industry is also dependent on the health and aesthetic appearance of its waterways. Plastic debris on beaches is unsightly and can hinder this important industry, even in rural areas.

Historically, coastal states and cities have been hotbeds for plastic bag and other types of disposable packaging bans. Legislation by municipalities banning plastic bags in the United States started in San Francisco. Some scrutiny of plastic bags is spurred by a concern for water quality and wildlife, making bans more common in states with a lot of coastline. Attention to plastics in the ocean has been under growing concern as greater data is released to highlight the issue.

To get a sense of scale, imagine that 24 billion plastic bags end up in the landfill in California alone, with an estimated cost of $25 million. Consider this magnitude combined with the fact that plastic bags are ending up in our waterways and affecting wildlife. In fact, a 2016 report predicts there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish by weight. Plastic isn’t biodegradable, so it will stay around for a very long time, making the problem harder to reverse.

What the Science Says

When many of us think of plastic contamination and wildlife, we may think of seabirds or turtles becoming tangled up in plastic waste or mistaking it for food, causing suffocation or starvation. Although this happens, there is now a growing concern about the impact of microplastics. These small pieces of plastic are less than 5 millimeters in size, and their effects are largely unknown. There is new evidence that microplastics affect the marine food chain and are even being ingested by zooplankton.

Although the exact effect of plastics on our waterways is unclear, plastics clearly are degrading water quality and presenting a threat to wildlife. A recent report by the Rochester Institute of Technology estimates that there are nearly 10,000 metric tons of plastic debris entering the Great Lakes each year. Microbeads, which are found in many personal care products, are one known culprit. Researchers from State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute found an average of 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer in Lake Michigan, with higher counts in Lake Erie.

While the science on the exact effects of plastics on waterways is still coming into focus, it points to the importance of preventing plastic debris from entering our waters. Michigan’s bold move to limit the ability of towns and municipalities to reduce waste may have made that more difficult.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Sarah Lozanova
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Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is a renewable energy and sustainability journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Earth911, Home Power, Triple Pundit, CleanTechnica, The Ecologist, GreenBiz, Renewable Energy World and Windpower Engineering. Lozanova also works with several corporate clients as a public relations writer to gain visibility for renewable energy and sustainability achievements.
Sarah Lozanova
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