Editorial: Plastics: educate rather than dictate

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” the main protagonist, Benjamin, a recent college graduate is at a homecoming party thrown by his parents where he is asked many questions about his future. One of those guests has some famous advice for Ben, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. ... Plastics.”

In the ’60s, even though the movie’s writers intended it as a humorous commentary on the middle class condition, it was good advice.

In the decades since then, there’s no question that the plastics industry has grown, with many new developments and applications, to become the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States.

We live in an age where cars have plastic fenders and bumpers.

But today, that guest might not make the same suggestion, particularly when it comes to plastic bags and single-serve plastic bottles. Those uses are increasingly under fire.

And that fight has now come to Greenfield.

Garrett Connelly, a Congress Street resident, is pitching two new ordinances that would ban plastic bags for use as shopping bags and single-serve water bottles. In a story that appeared in Monday’s Recorder, Connelly explained that “I started reading about what plastic does to the environment, the animals and sea life that comes in contact with it, and to cities and towns and us, and I decided I needed to do something.”

He’s right that plastics can be problematic to the environment. And this is particularly true when plastic bags and bottles become litter, thrown thoughtlessly on the sides of roads or simply disposed of improperly.

But should Greenfield take the significant step of an outright ban of both these products? Connelly wants this to happen but we think a more measured approach is appropriate, and that begins with education.

That education should include public reminders not only of the problems associated with plastic bags and single-serve water bottles but also the alternatives that people can adopt. With plastic bags it may mean pushing the use of reusable bags or changing over to paper. And, at the very least, to encourage the recycling of such bags, something that the supermarkets in the area are already advocating.

What concerns us with a ban is the economics of the issue. Along with the prohibition, Connelly is proposing attaching a 10-cent fee for using paper bags — with the money going to Greenfield’s DPW. Meanwhile, he says the cost to the stores for going to paper bags only would be passed on to the customer. In essence what is happening here is the elimination of one bag option and a tax on another.

Besides creating complications for the various stores at the checkout counter, in the end it will end up costing the customer.

Economics also comes into play with a ban on water bottles. Convenience is not the only reason people buy water, they also do so because it is seen as a safe alternative to what may come out of the tap — although we hasten to add that Greenfield’s water is tested constantly and earns high marks for its purity.

Yes, once upon a time there were public drinking fountains around. But what changed the landscape here was, in part, the ability to keep these fountains clean as well as ensure that the water was safe to drink and cold. For the town to reinstall water fountains or for business to offer “complimentary filling stations” does not take into account the financial investment, let alone the source of revenue for stores when it comes to the sale of these bottles.

Again, we think getting people to get more involved in recycling these bottles is a more measured step toward changing how people think and act.

These proposals are with the Town Council, which should recognize that bans create their own consequences.

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