Editorial: State should help rein in the age of plastic

Published: 3/21/2019 12:05:03 AM

Earlier this week, the New Hampshire House voted to restrict the use of plastic straws and ban the provision of single-use plastic bags to customers by stores with more than 1,000 square feet of retail space. The Senate should pass both bills, and Gov. Chris Sununu, an environmental engineer by training, should sign them into law.

Recycling, as the melting snows will soon reveal, hasn’t worked to eliminate the vast quantities of plastic pollutants littering the landscape and forming islands of ocean-going debris. Legislation is called for.

Last week, a dead beaked whale washed ashore in the Philippines. It had 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Last year, a sperm whale found on a beach in Spain, when autopsied, contained 64 pounds of plastic. Seabirds and sea turtles are starving, tricked into thinking they’re full by the indigestible plastic they’ve consumed. Half of all seat turtles found dead have plastic, often floating bags mistaken for jellyfish, in their stomachs. Some 270,000 tons of plastic are estimated to be floating in the world’s oceans. Millions of tons have settled to the ocean floor. Among the garbage spotted in the Marianis Trench, nearly seven miles below the ocean’s surface, were a plastic bag, a Spam container and a Budweiser can.

Chemicals from plastic broken down by sun and seawater are in the seafood we eat. Plastic, in the form of bags, straws, bottles, wrappings and microbeads used in cleaners and cosmetics, offends the eye, clogs machinery and kills vast quantities of marine life. Ironically celluloid, the prototypical plastic, was initially created in an effort to save sea turtles and elephants. The former were the source of combs, hair clips and other products, and the latter provided the ivory for piano keys and, most importantly, billiard balls. In 1869, according to the Smithsonian, America’s leading maker of billiard balls offered a $10,000 prize for the inventor who could come up with a replacement for ever-scarcer ivory. That led first to celluloid balls, which didn’t hold up and, because they contained nitrocellulose, sometimes exploded, and then to Bakelite. The age of plastic had begun. It’s a wonderful product, but the planet can no longer afford to employ it in disposable products.

House Bill 558 prohibits food service businesses from providing a plastic straw with a drink unless the customer requests one. That’s hardly an onerous requirement. Plastic straws cannot be recycled. Before plastic there were paper straws and today’s replacements include straws of paper, wood, stainless steel, pasta and other biodegradable materials.

House Bill 560 forbids the distribution of single-use plastic bags by larger stores. Heavier duty reusable plastic bags are available for a small fee, usually a dime or so, and most grocers offer cheap, sturdier bags that can be reused hundreds of times. Scores of Massachusetts communities have banned single-use plastic bags with no discernible harm to local economies. Dozens of nations, including China, have banned lightweight plastic bags or require that customers pay for them. It’s time New Hampshire joined them.

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