Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
September 08 2017

Up From Our Grassroots Bootstraps: We Are Winning the Single-Use Bag Fight

by Melissa Gates

Municipal bag ban and fee campaigns are trending across New England, building a strong case for bipartisan support of single-use bag legislation at the statewide level.

Surfrider has a proud grassroots foundation, where our members and supporters collectively strive to galvanize concurrent action at the local level across many coastal areas to then set good precedent that effects positive change for the ocean, waves and beaches at every level of government, from local to regional and national. Our successful work in mitigating plastic pollution by enacting local single-use bag legislation demonstrates the efficacy of our grassroots orientation, and the heart of our national network.

Concerned community members, environmental nonprofit organizations, and elected officials are at the forefront of organizing the local efforts that are now triumphantly sweeping the Northeast region, building off from grassroots beginnings that saw their first lasting success in the U.S. in 2007 with our nation’s first municipal bag ban to withstand legal challenge, in San Francisco, California.

We continue to fight the plastics industry at each turn, as lobbyists scurrying to keep the single-use moneymaking industry alive often show at hearings and present misleading information to decision-makers, sometimes even contradicting their own previous assertions about single-use plastic bags, as we saw with the first warning labels that were printed on plastic dry-cleaning bags. These labels came out in 1959, following the tragic deaths of 80 babies: plastics lobbyists defended their employers by decrying grief-stricken parents as careless, arguing that polyethylene film was “made and costed to be disposable,” insinuating that parents who kept the bags around for re-use exerted negligence that then led to the death of their children. Skipping ahead to 2017, the argument has shifted back again to meet the needs of the day for plastics manufacturers rather than the truth by now suggesting that single-use plastic bags are re-usable.

In spite of plastic industry efforts and their seemingly bottomless pockets to finance campaigns and lawsuits, the grassroots trend toward getting rid of single-use bags is growing. In New England alone at the writing of this blog, there are over 70 municipalities with enacted regulation of single-use plastic bags, 55 of which are in Massachusetts.

These municipal efforts have been anything but slow in the making in the Northeast. Of the 55 municipal laws in Massachusetts, 21 of them passed in the last year. This grassroots wildfire has set the stage with a strong case for support of statewide legislation that electeds in both Maine and Massachusetts have been trying to pass for several sessions.

As a result of grassroots efforts, proof that a majority of citizens want to get rid of single-use plastic bags is evident, and lawmakers are now working across the aisle to standardize policy that fosters good business practices to meet this need. There is currently a strong bill before the Massachusetts assembly, and new bills are set for re-introduction in Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut in the next session (stay tuned to our Northeast campaign page for ways to engage when the bills are introduced).

For a deeper dive into this vital work, I hope you will please register and attend our technical session at the 6th International Marine Debris Conference (6IMDC), titled A New England Case Study: municipalities in Maine and Massachusetts are building the case for support of statewide single-use bag legislation by enacting local policy.  

The 6IMDC is taking place in San Diego from March 12-16, 2018, and will bring together international marine debris researchers, natural resource managers, policy makers, industry representatives, and the nongovernmental community in sessions aimed at reducing the impacts of marine debris to vital natural resources, human health and safety, and the economy.

In our session, we will examine strategies for crafting legislation and building strong coalitions that advance good policy while mitigating conflicts via gaining buy-in from critical stakeholder groups. We will address critical policy measures aimed at ensuring compliance with the legislation and its intents, enforcement mechanisms, and other vital components that serve to mitigate plastics in the marine environment while shifting the consumer paradigm away from single-use and into sustainable use. I hope you can join us!

In the meantime, I urge you to engage in the single-use plastic bag fight! Get in touch with your local chapter and see what they're up to, join or renew your Surfrider membership to help support our work, and be sure to pick up trash you find on the beach. And hey, with our currently running Found Objects contest and a little creativity, you could even win some sweet prizes for your efforts while inspiring others to leave the beach cleaner than they found it.

Not sure WHY single-use plastic bags are a problem? Learn more & join us to do your part to mitigate this needless pollution!