National Commentary

Honor Mother Earth: Reduce Plastic and Paper Bag Waste

Born in 1970, Earth Day turned 40 this year. To mark the occasion my colleagues and I are encouraging states to take a proactive approach to paper and plastic bag pollution.

Last week I introduced a resolution that encourages states to establish targets for businesses to reduce distribution of plastic and paper bag use by 40 percent over the next five years. The bill would endorse efforts to educate the public about using reusable bags through public-private initiatives, public awareness campaigns and other methods whenever possible, and to facilitate the dissemination of best practices among businesses for reducing single-use retail bag consumption.

The resolution was inspired by two enterprising Georgetown University students, Mariel Reed and Brian Lin. As part of a class assignment, the duo approached me with an idea to promote reusable bag use. The aforementioned resolution gained the support of over twenty members of Congress less than 24 hours after it was introduced.

America goes through more than 100 billion plastic bags a year. A nonrenewable, non-biodegradable product, plastic bags have caused tens of thousands of animal and marine life fatalities, as critters get entangled in the plastic and suffocate or are poisoned by toxins the bags leach into the water and soil. While paper bags are less harmful to the environment, they require 4 times as much energy to produce and generate 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution.

There are a number of proven approaches to reducing plastic and paper bag use. Recycling can be part of the solution, but current rates are simply too low. Only 1 to 3 percent of all plastic bags and 10 to 15 percent of all paper bags are recycled.

Across the Potomac we’re witnessing a powerful case study in the use of economic measures to reduce bag waste. Late last year, the D.C. Council moved to impose a 5-cent tax on plastic bags. Before the new law, supermarkets and retail outlets were consuming 22.5 million bags each month. Once the usage tax was imposed, consumption fell dramatically. Total bag consumption dropped to 3 million for the month of January 2010, a whopping 87 percent decrease.

As America celebrates 40 years of conservation this Earth Day, we should remind ourselves that the path to a cleaner environment has not always been direct or easy.  The next decade will bring new challenges. Yet, looking back over the past 40 years, we have much progress to celebrate and a clearer view of where we need to go in the future.

Thanks to private and public recycling and conservation initiatives as well as landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, America is more beautiful and less polluted. I can think of no better way to honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day than by taking additional steps to clean up pollution and preserve our vital natural resources. Whether it’s by encouraging your lawmakers to pass a climate bill, using environmentally friendly fertilizer in your garden, or by reducing household plastic and paper bag waste through recycling or switching to reusable materials, I encourage everyone to honor mother earth this month and beyond.


Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.