April 3, 2014 (PBBR) - The first plastic bag ban in the U.S. was adopted in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1990. In 1998, Galena, Alaska adopted a ban which went into effect in January, 1999. In 2002, two more Alaska villages, Emmonak and Kotlik, passed plastic bag bans.
These first towns and villages were the pioneers of the movement. Remember, back then, there wasn't as much environmental or oceanic information available. And, what was available was not easily accessible by internet.
San Francisco, California
However, the ban wagon really started rolling after San Francisco adopted its ban in April, 2007. San Francisco set the precedent by proving that a modern, major city in the U.S. didn't have to tolerate street litter by disrespectful citizens.
2955 miles across the U.S. in another coastal town, Westport, Connecticut, Dr. Jonathan Cunitz had also been watching plastic bags blow through the streets. Dr Cunitz, a financial consultant with a doctorate and master degrees from Harvard Business School, was appointed to the Representative Town Meeting on November 26, 2007.
Dr. Cunitz wrote a plastic bag ordinance and less than a year and a half after San Francisco, in September, 2008, the Representative Town Meeting of Westport adopted the ordinance. Although Westport is less than 3% of the size of San Francisco, Dr. Cunitz' ordinance was the most far-reaching plastic bag ban in the country at the time.
The law banned plastic checkout bags at all stores, not just grocery stores, and included restaurants, sidewalk sales, and flea markets. The Westport ordinance has been used as a model ordinance for several other towns and cities along the east coast of the U.S., including Rye, NY.
Meanwhile, in our nation's capital, the Anacostia River, an urban tributary to the Potomac River, had a severe problem with excessive trash. It was so bad that it had resulted in both the District of Columbia and State of Maryland determining that pollution had impaired the quality of the river to the point that trash loads must be reduced. The two entities agreed to use the Anacostia River as a model of how to reduce trash in a river and move toward a trash free Potomac Watershed.
The City decided to not ban plastic bags but instead place a five cents charge for every disposable bag required by a customer at checkout. The law was titled, The Anacostia River Clean-Up and Protection Act of 2009. The fees that were collected by the law would be used specifically to clean up the river and protect it from further damage.
The fee-only plastic bag regulations was very successful and was used as a model for Montgomery County, Maryland's legislation.
On another coast of the U.S., the Gulf Coast, Rose Timmer and her non-profit, Healthy Communities of Brownsville, spearheaded a grass-roots effort to get a plastic bag ban passed in Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville is a border town with Mexico.
Timmer and her volunteers worked two years on the process. After a year, in September, 2009, they formed an environmental advisory committee and started meeting weekly. The group held litter clean-ups then counted the number of plastic bags collected to prove the bags were the city's main source of litter. They conducted surveys and worked with city attorneys to draft an ordinance.(1)
On January 6, 2010, the City Commission of Brownsville, Texas passed an ordinance banning single use plastic bags by retailers. The Ordinance prohibiting the use of plastic bags in the City of Brownsville was added to the LITTER section of the city’s Code of Ordinances.
One year later, Arturo Rodriquez MPH, Public Health Director at The City of Brownsville stated, “Our ordinance appears to have been effective in curbing specific litter from single use plastic bags."
Beulah Mendez-Ramirez, Legal Secretary for the Public Health Department said, “I have seen a reduction in plastic bags in our highways and freeways. I don’t see plastic bags flying around our streets and there has been a reduction in litter.”
(1) Rio Grande Guardian, April 5, 2011, Jesse Bertron