Let's contrast two trips.

Over Thanksgiving we visited relatives in Australia. We were struck by the lack of garbage along roads and near towns.  We rarely saw a plastic shopping bag or a plastic straw.

Two weeks ago we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park was in good shape but within 3-4 miles of each town we went through in New Mexico we saw hundreds if not thousands of pieces of shredded plastic bags hanging from everything and bits of plastic straws everywhere.

The difference is not that Australians are neat and New Mexicans aren’t.  The difference is Australians have as a society worked hard to eliminate the use of non-recyclable plastic for one-time purposes.

Everyone carries reusable cloth shopping bags, not only in grocery stores, but in all types of shops. A plastic bag adds 10 cents to your bill.  Coffee-stirring sticks are wood.  Drinks are served without straws and if you request one you get a paper straw.  When we ate at a bakery, the utensils were metal, not plastic.

Why, from a health perspective, is it important to eliminate the one-time use of plastic? Plastic discarded into the environment may contain additives that can leach out into the water supply that are carcinogenic or cause disruption in endocrine gland function that impacts hormone levels.

However, even chemically “safe” plastic can break into pieces that are ingested by wildlife and can kill them. Let's consider plastic straws.

Americans use about 390 million plastic straws a day (The Freedonia Group).  Straws are unnecessary (except in uncommon medical situations), unrecyclable and nonbiodegradable. They are in the top 10 items picked up on our beaches (1millionwomen.com). They contribute to the plastic eaten by wildlife with disastrous results, killing 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals each year (get-green-now.com).
Cities like Seattle have banned plastic straws and environmentally conscious local restaurants like Mariah’s serve drinks without straws and provide paper straws if necessary.

The state of Illinois is finally taking positive steps to deal with the issue of plastic bags as a source of plastic pollution.  House Bill 3335, the Carryout Bag Fee Act, would place a 10-cent fee on plastic bags provided at retail outlets with three cents of the money being retained by the store, four cents to the Carryout Bag Fee Fund and three statewide funds getting one cent each: the Solid Waste Management Fund, the Partners in Conservation Fund, and the U of I Prairie Research Institute. 

The Carryout Bag Fee Fund would go to various county or municipal agencies in the county where it was collected to fund the collection of various hazardous wastes and related environmental functions. Purchases made under government food assistance programs would be exempt from the fee.

In the Senate there is a less satisfactory bill, SB 1240.  It pushes for a seven-cent-per-bag fee that allocates the money two cents to the retail store, two cents to the General Revenue Fund and three cents to a Checkout Bag Tax Fund. Again there is an exemption for food assistance programs.

SB 1240 is less satisfactory because two cents generated under the premise of improving the environment will disappear into the General Revenue Fund for who knows what purpose, the local retailer and Carryout Bag Fund get less money and some important statewide initiatives get nothing.  The wording may prevent local regulation of containers.

We urge readers to write to their state representatives and state senators asking them to back HB 3335 and oppose SB 1240.  If no state action occurs, nothing prevents our own city council from taking action to reduce plastic pollution.

For those wanting more information on plastic pollution, the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club is having a presentation on the topic April 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Carnegie Room of the Abraham Lincoln Public Library at Seventh and Capitol.  

Stephen and Karen Soltys are both retired physicians. Stephen teaches at SIU School of Medicine on a volunteer basis and Karen volunteers with various community organizations.

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