Even Plastic Bags Are Divisive - TribPapers

Even Plastic Bags Are Divisive

All plastic bags don't make it into the French Broad. These help with sanitary elder care.All plastic bags don't make it into the French Broad. These help with elder care.

Asheville – In London, they’re called witches’ nickers. In Wellington, they fly 60 feet overhead. In Buncombe County, they dissolve into tiny bits in the air and water that humans breathe and drink.

Action alerts went out from MountainTrue. Concerned citizens were asked to show up at the Buncombe County Commissioners’ September 19 meeting and urge them to craft a local ordinance banning the use and offering of single-use plastic bags.

The plot thickened, according to a post on the website of the Sierra Club’s Western North Carolina Group, as it was discovered that legislators had slipped language into the state’s budget that would ban such bans. Incidentally, the current fiscal year started on July 1, and the legislators are still unable to find a happy medium. The bill is currently 625 pages long.

As the bill read at that time, Sections 153A-145.11 and 160A-205.6 would prohibit counties and cities, respectively, from restricting, taxing, or charging a fee for “the use, disposition, or sale of” what are being referred to as auxiliary containers. These include a long list of items, including plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, but also service items made of cardboard, glass, or aluminum.

Karim Olaechea of Mountain True complained to the commissioners about how this language was generated in backroom deals and snuck into the budget. Such actions were neither transparent nor democratic. Nina Tovish found the budget rider “appalling.” She said that if she were to win the lottery, she would invest in the development of more environmentally friendly plastics.

Tovish suggested the county might skirt the law by incentivizing non-use. Cindy Dwyer said just before Florida prohibited local governments from passing bans on single-use plastics, “one community” passed an ordinance under the wire, so its plastics ban was grandfathered in. It is unknown which community she referenced, but Coral Gables had a plastic bag ban that was overturned in court.

Activists have been circulating petitions to ban single-use plastics in Buncombe County since at least 2013. A couple high school students spoke before the commissioners about their petition, and others raved about the immense public support for the initiative. One student, who introduced herself as Lila, was critical of the “culture of convenience” and said the government had to regulate businesses for a change.

Many who spoke self-identified as members of Plastic-Free WNC, a coalition of BeLoved Asheville, Asheville en Espanol, MountainTrue, the Sierra Club, and the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group. Its website is written with a punchy attitude reminiscent of attempts to “reach out to the other in their voice.” While there’s no “about” page or contact information, links to the movement’s social media pages all go to MountainTrue pages.

The site announces rallies and provides boilerplate letters and addresses for contacting legislators. It even posts a proposed ordinance for local governments to adopt. In addition, it lists factoids to illustrate the abundance and dangers of microplastics in the great outdoors.

During the commissioners’ meeting, more than one person brought up the fact that everybody now inhales and ingests a credit card worth of microplastics each week. Judy Mattox, chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, shared that microplastics were detected in 100% of water samples taken from the French Broad River. The average person uses 365 plastic bags each year. Kirby spends an additional $10,000 a year extracting unrecyclable bags that people have thrown in their recycling bins. Then, efforts to recycle plastic bags in special bins don’t work because less than 5% of bags are ever collected.

Nothing was on the commissioners’ agenda either way about a plastics ban. Across the street, in Asheville City Hall, however, council had already directed staff to begin phasing in a plan to reduce the use of auxiliary containers. It started with a ban on bagging leaves in plastic for curbside collection. This ban went into effect on August 1.

The city has been working closely with Plastic-Free WNC and MountainTrue, collecting data to inform the reduction plan. A survey of business owners, they said, showed widespread support for bans on plastic and Styrofoam and little anticipated economic impact. It also showed that 60% of those respondents don’t use those products anyway. Phase 2 recommendations will come before city council for approval within the next three months.

Durham was moving even faster. Their city council was poised to pass an ordinance that would require businesses to charge 10 cents per plastic bag and ban plastic utensils in sit-down restaurants—until the rider surfaced. People addressing the commissioners suspected the legislative move was directed toward Durham and Asheville.