Government Maplewood Opinion

SOMA Justice: We Must Look Beyond Punishing Consumers to Curb Use of Plastics

As a nation – as a world – we are in a dire environmental crisis. Air, land, and water pollution threatens not just human survival, but every single species on earth.

The urgency of these rapidly deteriorating changes demands radical change. As part of the effort to reduce and eradicate the vast accumulation plastics in our rivers and oceans, some environmental activists have taken aim at the use of single-use plastics. Unfortunately, it seems that these efforts have largely shifted to curbing and punitively addressing consumer behavior, rather than a larger system that produces, distributes, and profits off of petroleum-based item production.

We hope that any such initiative towards either proactively incentivizing the use of reusable bags (through discounts, such as 10 cents per bag), punishing the use of single use plastic or paper bags (through fees such as 5 cents or 10 cents charged), or the complete eradication of single use or paper bags take the following recommendations into consideration:

1) We ask that there be an appropriate and fair education and implementation campaign that takes equity into consideration.

The education campaign should be implemented prior to and during the roll-out of the ordinance. In order to target low-income households the education should occur at the places that they frequent. While all the major grocery stores and chains in our community are identified in current discussions, there are other corner stores in South Orange and on Springfield Ave that should be targeted for informative material, including the dollar stores. It would also be helpful to be at houses of worship, senior centers, and to send information home through school PTA emails and children’s folders. In addition, presenting educational assemblies in school is often an effective method to change parents behavior because they hear the information from their children, as well as receiving it from the PTA and outside of the grocery store. Using a variety of methods to communicate will ensure that a greater diversity of the our community received the message.

2) We ask that any proposals to improve the environment move beyond regressive taxation.

All policies whose intent is to nudge individual behavior change through a tax, are regressive taxes, disproportionately impacting low-income people. Environmentalists and advocates for low-income families should not be at odds with each other and the two are not mutually exclusive.

Corporations, small businesses, and municipalities should also bear the burden of making change. For example, substituting plastic pet waste bags in parks for biodegradable or compostable single-use baggies is a simple change that the town can make towards meeting consumers half-way on efforts to minimize plastic use (while still helping to keep our parks clean).

Shampoo bottles, cup tops, disposable razors, food packaging and toothbrushes are all examples of single-use plastics produced by corporations. Any efforts that focus only on end-users and consumers seem destined to both fail and distract from a necessary wider lens on the problem of single-use plastics.

3)  We ask that the towns support the use of reusable bags made of biodegradable and/or compostable materials.

Environmentalists debate whether the use of “reusable” bags, also made of petroleum-based synthetic materials with an even longer lifespan than single-use plastics, are actually a better alternative in terms of environmental impact. Paper products, of course, depend upon deforestation. We ask that you consider requiring the use of biodegradable options, such as bags made of cotton or bamboo, or other earth-friendly materials.

4) The municipalities should offer free reusable bags at stores as the ordinance is phased in.

We’re suggesting during the first two months of implementation.

5) Any bag fee should be phased in.

We’re suggesting after the first two months of its announcement and the distribution of outreach materials.

6) We ask that any fees accrued from such efforts be directed towards sustainable, inclusive environmental change.

Coming up with alternatives to single-use plastics will require innovation, better quality materials, and financial investment. We ask that, rather than returning profits from plastic bags to businesses (as proposed in statewide plastic bag ban policies), this money get directed to fund projects, ideas, and infrastructure that will help shift us towards a zero-waste reality. They can also be used to subsidize the cost of reusable bags to make them more accessible to everyone.

Furthermore, we recognize that poor and POC communities are typically the ones most impacted by environmental pollution. We also believe that any revenue generated from such initiatives be directed towards mitigating these conditions in terms of air and land pollution, clean-up in these communities, and healthcare funds to treat environmental neglect and resulting illnesses.

7) We ask that any exemptions regarding bag fees for disabled, elderly, or low-income consumers be explicit and clearly shared.

We oppose any efforts to prohibit store employees from sharing any details of a finalized plan. Rather, we encourage the progressive use of financial incentives targeted towards any group that may be exempted due to hardship (for example, giving 10 – 50 cents off groceries for use of reusable bags). We believe that information on the exemptions should be widely distributed (without restriction) and that exemptions should be liberally granted. While we support the longer term goal of the zero waste initiative, we believe that accommodations for elderly, disabled, and low-income people should be among the last measures to be addressed (and done in an accessible and holistic way, such as ensuring that reusable bags are available to these consumers without any charge).     

8) We ask that any stores that typically use bags in grocery delivery services be required to provide reusable bags rather than use plastic bags and charge people who depend on these services.

9) Finally, we ask that there be a plan to evaluate both the rollout of the ordinance and the effectiveness. Good public policy comes from being thoughtful and based on research, not based on trends. If our goal is to reduce unnecessary waste, we need to be sure that we are accomplishing that goal in a meaningful way.

Individual behavior change is the hardest thing to achieve with public policy. Good public policy uses a combination of both carrots and sticks to achieve outcomes. Strategies that focus on policy, systems, and environmental change are much more successful at achieving outcomes. These strategies are often grounded in the social ecological framework which attempts to nudge a change through multiple factors of influence including intra/inter personal factors, community, institutional, and policy factors.

Signed by SOMA Justice Leadership and Supporters, including:

Khadijah Costley White, PhD

Jane Perry, MA

Kasia Piekarz

Susan Bergin, JD

Kelly Piccola

Melissa Renny

Shannon Kirk

Barbara League Velasquez

David Letwin

Kimi Nakata

Colleen Breslin

Kerry Miller

Mary Ellen Maher Dawkins

Jody Weinman

Allyson Hurder Levy

Beverley Awbrey

Stephanie J. Mafla – Mills

Rosemary McLaughlin

Anne Klar

Kiersten Lissenden Carlson

Ronni Brecher Schwartz

Traci Billado

Robert Beaton

Alison Waldman

Elly Lonon

Jamaine Cripe

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