Group tackles issues with plastic bags

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 9, 2008

SMITHFIELD—Fittingly, a box lunch provided by the Virginia Retail Federation opened the Virginia Plastic Bag Advisory Group meeting Wednesday at the Smithfield Center, while Del. William Barlow, D-Smithfield, greeted the assembly of people to discuss the plastic problem that has been plaguing Isle of Wight.

The Virginia Plastic Bag Advisory Group was founded to resolve the agricultural and economic problems associated with plastic bag litter and contamination.

&uot;It’s the most infamous migratory species we have,&uot; said Julia Hillegas, senior environmental planner for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

Local farmers are among those economically hit by plastic bag litter. The bags get caught in machinery, are ingested by animals and are impossible to separate from cotton during the ginning process, leaving farmers with low-quality cotton.

&uot;Of course it’s a huge problem, and we are coming at it from different angles,&uot; Barlow said.

The different approaches include research and legislation, as well as educational and incentive programs. The group aims to use several means to educate the citizens and change legislation and practices surrounding plastic bag usage.

Although a plan of action has not been set for the group, The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Division of Environmental Enhancement Director Michael Murphy said a bill proposed by state Sen. Fred Quayle (R-13th) that would ban plastic bags will be reconsidered this winter.

An option to model a program after a litter control initiative in Southwestern Virginia was also suggested by Murphy. The program includes roadside cleanup and has had positive results, he said.

Other alternatives that were discussed included incentive programs for recycling, taxes or assigning costs for plastic bags, educational programs and convenience centers.

The educational programs would target every age group and include things like signage with no cost to Isle of Wight businesses, a Go Green campaign and a paper bag design contest for students that will be done in conjunction with International Paper, said Susan Milhoan, CEO and President of Retail Alliance.

&uot;I really think something like this is what the ordinary citizen would seize on,&uot; said Barlow.

On the other side of the spectrum, Donna Dempsey, Senior Managing Director for the Progressive Bag Alliance, presented a case for plastics. Dempsey said Isle of Wight had a &uot;very unique situation,&uot; with regards to its problems with plastic bags and emphasized that any measure taken would require a &uot;behavioral change.&uot;

She provided examples of places that have used legislative means to control plastic bags, including San Francisco, which mandated plastic bags be degradable, Malibu, which banned plastic bags and Ireland, which currently has a 25-cent tax on plastic bags. She did caution that an exact replica of one of these programs would not work for Isle of Wight.

&uot;It’s not take one program and fit it,&uot; Dempsey said.

She also said that paper bags are more harmful to the environment than plastic bags, citing production statistics for each. While programs in other areas have been effective, Dempsey said all stems from the basics.

&uot;It comes down to the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle,&uot; she said.

The next meeting of the Virginia Plastic Bag Advisory Group will be scheduled for the second week in July with plans to discuss further progress and more options to solve the problems the litter of plastic bags has caused both the environment and farmers.