Find Out Who's Behind Banning Plastic Bag Bans
Plastic bag use has become ubiquitous in many parts of the world as a cheap and convenient means of transporting items. Meant for one-time usage, plastic bags have left a deep imprint on the planet. All over the world, countries are taking action by either banning lightweight plastic bags, charging for them or generating taxes from the stores that sell them. Among the countries that have banned plastic bags outright are Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia. In the U.S. more than 100 counties and municipalities have banned plastic bags, with California being the first to impose a statewide ban.
Plastic pollution threatens waterways and coastlines. Photo credit: Shutterstock
However many of these important measures are in trouble in the U.S. California’s landmark legislation is now officially on hold, with a referendum to repeal the ban added to the ballot for November 2016. Florida and Arizona have both already passed bills making the banning of plastic bags illegal. Powerful and large special interest lobbying groups are behind these “ban bans” as well as litigation aimed at already existing bans. Outside interests are funding these efforts to dissuade and dismantle local level legislation. Primary among them is the Progressive Bag Affiliates, funded by the largest plastic bag manufacturers in the country and the American Chemistry Council.
On March 26, the Georgia House defeated Senate Bill 139, legislation prohibiting cities and towns from restricting plastic bags and other single-use items. Right up to the vote, this was a heated issue with both sides trying to garner support. I testified in opposition to the bill because I am passionate about instilling the values of reusing and recycling, as well as supporting legislation that makes good common sense. This bill did not.
Take for instance the two Georgia communities where interest in these restrictions has been gaining the most steam, Athens-Clarke County and Tybee Island. Tybee Island citizens are combating the ruinous effect plastic waste has on their coastline. Not only do they depend on tourism as a mainstay of their economy but they are home to five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles. Sadly, turtles ingest the plastic bags, posing significant health risks and even death. In Athens-Clarke County, citizens are struggling to meet their waste-diversion goals as landfills are filling up. These bags pose a problem not only in traditional waste environments but recycling facilities as well. Plastic bags are more difficult to recycle and can damage expensive equipment.
Tybee Island's sea turtles ingest plastic bags thinking they are jelly fish which can lead to significant health risks. Photo credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Let’s be real about plastic bags; they are non-biodegradable, cause huge build-ups of litter, endanger animals, increase our foreign dependence on oil and poison our waters. We trade all of this for mere moments of convenience. Americans use and dispose of an unfathomable 100 billion plastic bags annually and at least 12 million barrels of oil are used per year to manufacture them.
Last year Tybee Island taxpayers spent $600,000 on beach cleanups and related waste management without help from the state. Nationally, only an approximate three percent of plastic bags are recycled each year. These bags can take thousands of years to break down, but due to the nature of their materials they don’t really fully decompose. As such, there is a tremendous amount of one-use plastics that wash down our storm drains and into our rivers, lakes and ultimately, our oceans. Once exposed to the harsh conditions of saltwater and sun the plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces.
This oceanic plastic pollution, driven by powerful circulating currents, accumulates into five giant garbage patches, the largest, estimated to be twice the size of Texas, is in the Northern Pacific. And this is only what we can see on the surface; the amounts that lie below are much, much greater. This plastic pollution doesn’t accumulate forever, rapidly fragmenting in the gyres, it is pushed outward across the planet, where it washes up on beaches or settles on the seafloor, much like smog does in the air.
Here in Georgia, the impact of plastic bags is plainly evident on our beloved Chattahoochee river and the network of creeks and streams in the river basin. Carried by heavy rains, you can see hundreds of these bags in tree and shrub branches, true eyesores, too high to be reached by volunteers who participate in regularly scheduled cleanups. The good news is we are slowly waking up to this man-made crisis, with localities passing their own legislation to reduce plastic bags across the country.
Some companies are already taking steps on their own. Whole Foods will credit you for bringing your own bags, which you can then contribute back to the many causes of the Whole Planet Foundation, my favorite being microenterprise lending to poor women. At Costco, they do not offer bags at all, although you may reuse their cardboard packing containers.
In Georgia, we have been victorious in deterring powerful outsider groups from interfering in our local politics and stopping important legislation. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. One of the best ways you can make a difference is by starting at home and implementing a family policy of the four R’s—Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Refuse. Just refuse plastic bags and other one use throw-away items. You can also visit the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the 5 Gyres Institute websites to learn more on the threat of plastic waste.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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