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The plastic conundrum

Living in this area — in the inarguably lovely Harlem Valley — it’s hard not to be an environmentalist of sorts. Even if not hard-core, most people around here appreciate the scenic beauty and natural resources found in our rural towns and villages. 

In an effort to preserve what we have, Townscape of Millerton and North East — a grassroots community betterment group that plants trees, hangs holiday decorations and maintains the composting toilets at the head of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail — decided to challenge local residents. The hook? See how much plastic one uses in his or her daily life, and then figure out how much of the material gets used during a two-week period. The effort comes just in time for Earth Day, which falls on Monday, April 22.

It’s called the Eco Challenge, and according to Townscape President Jeanne Vanecko, it’s a chance for the community to step back from its plastic consumption.

“The numbers… may seem overwhelming,” Vanecko told Millerton News reporter Kaitlin Lyle last week. “I hope through this challenge people will come to realize that you can only get to those large numbers through the small numbers… and that means you can reverse that process by a lot of individuals changing their behavior.”

To help gauge how much plastic one uses during the day, participants are asked to keep a daily record. They can track how many plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic bags and plastic cups they use in the tabulation booklets that can be picked up throughout the village. Then, along with registering their data in those booklets, they can log in their plastic use online.

“When we total everybody’s numbers, they’re going to be aghast at how much plastic a small community like ours uses,” said Vanecko.

She’s right. Let’s focus on single-use plastic bags for now. According to a study published in Waste Management, released in 2007, “between 500 billion and 1.5 trillion plastic shopping bags are used each year worldwide.” That was 12 years ago. 

And, across the globe, just a fraction of plastic bags are “successfully diverted” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Fewer than 5 percent of those bags are recycled in this country, with the rest winding up in landfills or “unintentionally released into the environment.” 

Additionally, the Journal of Environmental Politics states that 100 billion plastic shopping bags are used each year in the U.S.

It’s no wonder that according to the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force Report, plastic bags are problematic. Because, it states, bags are:

• Derived from fossil fuels

• A source of litter on land and in waterways

• A source of avoidable excess packaging waste used for mere minutes

• Harmful to marine habitats and wildlife

• Create tangles and jams in recycling and waste water processing equipment

• Costly for municipalities and recycling centers in terms of time and money to manage

“It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish,” claims the report.

Gov. Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled State Legislature passed a  single-use plastic bag ban just in time for $175.5 billion budget adoption. The ban outlaws the use of single-use plastic bags (with some exceptions) and allows for municipalities to tack on a 5 cent tax for paper bags — all in an effort to encourage use of reusable bags. The budget deal means the ban will go into effect by this time next year. 

We’re glad the governor had the foresight to suggest the ban in the first place, following in the steps of California, the first and only other state to enact a state-wide single-use plastic bag ban, though all Hawaii counties ban the bags as well. Any way in which we can reduce our carbon footprint — especially in our local communities — should be considered as we look toward the future. Relying less on plastic bags is one way to do so. Another good tactic? Take Townscape’s Eco Challenge.

To learn how to participate in the Eco Challenge, read Lyle’s story on this week’s front page, pick up a tabulation booklet from any Main Street merchant or log onto www.millertonecochallenge.com. The login code is “ecosite.”