Plastic bag ban seen as progress

'THE FUTURE IS HERE': Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee speaks at the Guam Earth Day March and Rally 2018 in April. The senator asked for support of her bill to ban plastic bags. Her bill recently became law. Post file photo

A new plastic bag ban became law June 5, but it will be more than two years until it goes into effect.

As of Jan. 1, 2021, retailers will have to stop giving out disposable plastic bags.

Recycling advocate Peggy Denney, the program administrator for i*recycle Guam, said the bill is a sign of progress.

Sponsored by Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee, the bill cited the exponential rise in plastic waste as a reason for the ban. Several other islands already passed similar bans, including Palau, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and Yap.

Biscoe Lee said in a statement that the plastic bag ban is “the first step of many.”

“By starting with one of the most commonly littered and one of the most ecologically detrimental items, we will start down a greener path,” she said in the statement.

There are currently millions of tons of plastics in the ocean, and most of the world’s plastic doesn’t get recycled, according to a University of Georgia study. In 2015, during the International Coastal Cleanup, 5,031 plastic grocery bags were collected from beaches around Guam.

“I guess I’m (OK) with a ban in (two) years,” Paul Tobiason, a member and former president of the Recycling Association of Guam, said in an email. But, he said, he thinks the ban should start sooner – in 30 days instead of two years.

Denney said the ban is a step in the right direction, though she said there are concerns about retailers switching to paper bags, which Denney said cost more than twice that of plastic bags.

“Probably the best way to make this law work is to really promote the use of reusable bags and get people in the habit now,” Denney said, adding that a switch to reusable bags would be a “win-win-win” situation for retailers, consumers and the environment.

Annania Nauta, community relations coordinator for Pay-Less Markets Inc., agreed, saying Pay-Less would prefer to use reusable bags only.

"Inclusion of brown paper bags will definitely impact retailers," Nauta said in an email, noting that Pay-Less transactions "(hover) around 450,000 each month." Pay-Less currently sells reusable bags in its stores.

Tobiason said the real problem is that once used, disposable plastic bags have no value, and therefore companies and customers have no incentive to dispose of them properly.

“Companies can make their profit, yet are not responsible for any disposal,” he said.

Denney also said this is an issue, and she plans to promote upcycling: taking trash and making it into something of value. One of Denney’s ideas: make plastic bags into plastic yarn – or “plarn” – and crochet it into something else, such as a sleeping mat for someone who is homeless, or a large, reusable shopping bag.

“We just need to get to the point where we use our own bags and we’re responsible for bringing our own bags,” Denney added.

Pay-Less Supermarkets stopped using plastic bags for one day each week, according to the grocery chain's website, sometime before Biscoe Lee’s bill became law. Instead, Pay-Less stores use paper or reusable bags every Wednesday, offering a 5-cent rebate for each reusable bag a customer uses.

"Implementation of the new policy won't be a large transition," Nauta wrote, "since we already restrict the distribution of plastic bags on Wednesdays."

Denney said Pay-Less does see a drop in sales on Wednesdays, but she remains optimistic that customers' habits can change.

"I think we can do it," she said, "but there's a lot of education involved," even something as simple as "little reminders you hang in your rearview mirror: Do you have your reusable bag?"

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