Life After Plastic

Towns are banning plastic. Mine’s one of them.

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In December 2018, my town voted to ban single use plastic bags. Then in June, the Vermont legislature voted to ban four categories of single use plastics, including plastic bags, straws, stirrers, and foam food packaging. The latter ban takes effect summer 2020. The former took effect July 2019.

Plastic bans are a growing trend. They’re also a source of frustration for some, and they raise issues of equity and ableism. Here are some notes on both, along with my impressions of the aftermath of plastic bans, from here on the ground in no-bag country.

As someone who is not disabled and has never had a need beyond convenience for plastic straws, I have learned a lot in recent months by listening to the voices of those who plastic straw bans impact negatively.

Alice Wong wrote a very powerful article for Eater on this subject, titled “The Last Straw.” The subtitle for the article is, “I need plastic straws. Banning them puts a serious burden on people with disabilities.”

In the article, Wong writes:

“Once you have something that provides access, it is difficult and harmful to take it away from a marginalized community that depends on it. I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is treasured and hard-won. Bans on plastic straws are regressive, not progressive.”

Wong writes that plastic straws are best, noting that compostable ones tend to melt or fall apart, particularly with hot beverages. Twitterer and former classmate of mine @Moosesplainer has done a lot of good writing about this subject. In one thread, he writes, in part:

Vermont’s plastic ban law, which will go into effect next summer, allows for single-use plastic straws upon request. This too is regarded by many as being ableist. It requires someone to request accommodations when, until now, that accommodation was widely available. As Wong writes,

“It’s not easy or pleasant asking for help in public spaces like restaurants, because you never know what attitudes you’ll encounter: indifference, pity, or outright rejection.”

As someone who doesn’t need straws, I personally have very few feelings about not using them, although I acknowledge that wide availability means better equity for those who need straws. Setting aside that issue momentarily, for many who don’t need them but are used to using them, this shift will require adjustment, and many alternatives are not being welcomed with open arms.

An acquaintance told me she is no longer comfortable with metal straws after a woman impaled herself with one. Meanwhile, paper straws are the ire of many, largely because they fall apart. In July, the Trump campaign debuted a $15 pack of 10 straws emblazoned with Trump’s name, which The Guardian reported earned the campaign close to $500,000 in one week. The description on the product page for the straws reads, “Liberal paper straws don’t work.”

As a former Walt Disney World cast member, I belong to a Facebook group of other cast members along with diehard Disney fans. I have seen numerous complaints in that group from people who are mad about the use of paper straws in the parks. Some of them have stocked up on disposable plastic straws and intend to bring them into the parks with them.

Last week, I traveled through several towns that already didn’t have straws. For cold beverages, they had tops like the ones Starbucks has said it will be using. I found drinking out of the lids, which have been described as “adult sippy cups,” to be an overall pleasurable experience. But again, I have no reason to need a straw, nor am I too attached to them.

It’s worth noting that questions have been raised about whether or not the plastic lids will end up adding more plastic to the environment than straws would have. According to The Guardian, Starbucks says the type of plastic used in the lids is a recyclable plastic “that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment.”

My town’s bag ban is fairly new and was rolled out with free paper bags at our local grocery store. According to the clerks at the store, they are going to start charging for paper bags soon. It’s yet unclear whether that will be a 5-, 7-, or 10-cent charge. Currently, paper bags in nearby Brattleboro cost 5 cents. As of July 2020, the law will dictate that recyclable brown paper bags will carry a charge of “not less than $0.10 per bag.”

Recently, my local store temporarily ran out of paper bags but had reusable recycled plastic bags on hand for purchase for 10 cents. I asked the clerks whether they’ve gotten pushback, and they said generally people haven’t complained much about the transition to paper bags, but they theorized that that may be because at present, the paper bags are free.

“Today with the 10-cent plastic bags, people aren’t happy,” said one store clerk. “And they’ll insult you to your face about it.”

I would think it would go without saying, but, the store clerks who work at this corporately-owned, albeit small, grocery store don’t have control over such matters. It was unclear talking to my local clerks whether the pushback was annoyance from people for whom 10 cents is not a hardship or if it was frustration from those for whom it may be. Knowing the demographics of my town, I would guess it was some from column A, some from column B.

Which brings me to…

Some have noted that reusable bags are fine for suburban folks with cars who have the means to purchase reusable bags or pay the fee for paper bags, but the burden of carrying around reusable bags or being charged for paper bags is undue for low-income communities.

Some states are moving to address this. As this Gizmodo article explains, a proposal in New York included “features like exempting WIC and SNAP recipients from the bag fee. It also plans to tunnel 80 percent of the bag fees to the state Environmental Protection Fund to help with pollution reduction efforts, education, and free reusable bag distribution.”

In my community, reusable “bag shares” have popped up, where people with extra reusable bags leave them in designated spots for anyone to use. This is a great idea, but in practice, the racks are often empty.

The best bag alternative I’ve seen regularly used is our co-op making the cardboard boxes that products come to the store in available for packing groceries. They can be grabbed for free, and it turns out that putting groceries in a box is actually a great way to transport them. But, the box pile runs out sometimes too, and then fees have to be paid for paper bags. And I’m not sure a box would necessarily be easy to use were one on foot or using public transportation.

Having seen non-plastic-bag and no-straw solutions in action, it appears to me that for a lot of people, a future without plastic straws or plastic bags is a doable one. At the same time, there are things to consider in terms of what we are tasking fellow community members with when we charge for bags at stores and make straws less (or not) available. I hope that as these issues evolve, we continue to keep in mind our community members for whom these transitions negatively impact.

In the meantime, day-to-day, there are some other, mundane, things to figure out. A coworker told me she’s unsure what she’ll empty her cat’s litter box into without plastic shopping bags laying around. My daughter’s school frequently used them for soiled clothes (for potty training kids) and are at a loss in their absence. Her teacher told me she recently wrapped some peed-on clothes in a latex glove. We’ll find new ways to collect and transport these things, but it’ll take some adjustment. So it goes.

Lauren Harkawik is a writer of essays and fiction and a small-town reporter in rural Vermont.

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Essayist, fiction writer + local reporter in VT. She/her.

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