Time to choose: the future or plastic?

Rob Pfeiffer of Lincolnville recently brought up a point that we've heard little about in the ongoing plastic bag ban debates happening in several Midcoast towns right now.

Pfeiffer, who has talked to officials in Rockland and Camden about either banning or charging fees for plastic bags to reduce their use, called for a regional approach in which Rockland, Thomaston, Rockport, Camden and Belfast would all agree to work together on this ban.

The importance of this was captured in a comment from Rockland Mayor Will Clayton, who raised the concern that the city might find itself at a disadvantage if if bans plastic bags and neighboring Thomaston, with its big stores, does not.

Clayton was voicing an economic concern. But that thinking has ramifications for bag bans with their broad view of reducing harm to the environment by limiting the amount of plastic released into the world. Local response to bag bans remains one of the big, outstanding questions. If, as Clayton fears, shoppers are willing to drive to another town for the convenience of disposable plastic bags, the point of the bag ban will be defeated, and bivalves up and down Maine's 3,000-mile coastline will continue to eat plastic for the foreseeable future.

Right here in Penobscot Bay, a study found 17 plastic fragments per liter of water. Turtles and other marine wildlife eat plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish and other food. Many of those die from ingesting our pollution. Other marine creatures eat the tiny fragments of plastic floating in the water, mistaking them for the plankton that serve as an important source of food. Every year, more than 100,000 marine animals are killed by our plastic pollution.

The plastic can last for as long as 500 to 1,000 years and it is made from petroleum. As it breaks down, it spreads harmful chemicals. It is estimated that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year and The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans. We are eating some of these chemicals as we take sustenance from seafood.

In a nutshell, or maybe a mussel shell, we've got a problem. And as coastal communities, we have an even greater responsibility to solve it. The ocean has been our livelihood, and if we do not see the importance of protecting it, who will? But also, if Thomaston won't, does it matter if Rockland will?

It's easy to poke holes in the ban-the-bag platform — from our own investigations, local laws seem to be as prone to leaks as the flimsy polyethylene bags they target. But we agree with the sense from local officials that something is probably better than nothing. It's a lot to swallow and town and city officials have been impressively diligent so far. Before they sign off on any laws, we hope they check in with their neighboring municipalities to be sure that the new rules accomplish their goals.

Until that time comes, consider using fewer plastic bags and be sure to properly recycle those you do use (which you can do at Hannaford).