Archived Story

Plastic bags cost more to use than to make

Published 10:24am Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

I was delighted to find stamps commemorating Lady Bird Johnson at the post office recently.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Years ago when my family was driving down a highway in central Minnesota, I asked my mother why there were columns of trees on either side of the roadway. She said it was thanks to the former first lady’s highway beautification efforts. I don’t know if those particular trees were from her federally funded projects, but I loved them, and I can still picture the late afternoon sun sifting through the evergreens as we rolled through the picturesque corridor. I began to admire the woman with the funny nickname. (Her given name was Claudia Alta.)

Fast forward three decades, and Lady Bird’s accomplishments still abound, though most of them don’t bear her name on their banners. They are flowers that blossom and trees that tower year after year and make our lives more livable.

A quote attributed to her is, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” I wholeheartedly agree.

When I visit plant nurseries in the spring, my happiness is off the charts and my family budget is in peril. I buy flowers here and there and everywhere until my husband cuts me off.

I’m not the only one who gets a boost from greenery; social scientists have documented that access to green spaces increases quality of life and reduces stress. In one study from England, the effects were more long-lasting than the happiness people experienced from getting a raise at work. This is hugely significant to our increasingly urban world population, where depression is among the top causes of disability.

One of the biggest bummers in green spaces and gray spaces alike is plastic bag litter. It’s ubiquitous. In the United States, we consume more than 100 billion single-use bags each year, and well over 90 percent of it isn’t recycled. The bags easily blow away from us and end up in ditches, tree branches, storm drains, lakes, rivers and eventually our oceans. They cost municipalities and other governments more in cleanup than the original price of the bags. They kill birds and marine life. We surround ourselves with so much garbage like this in the name of convenience, but it’s not cheap, and we all suffer the enduring ugliness of it.

California is considering a statewide ban on plastic bags that would go into effect next year. Many coastal cities in California and other parts of the country have already instituted bans.

Closer to home, no cities in Minnesota have taken that measure yet. A couple of months ago, though, Grand Rapids became the first city in the state to ask its citizens to voluntarily restrict their use of plastic bags and take reusable bags on shopping trips. There are plenty of models to potentially follow, and I hope that Albert Lea will also consider banning or taxing plastic bags — our city has more at stake than some because the health of our lakes is affected by the waste.

The plastic bag industry has their PR representatives trolling for any activity like this, and they use terms such as “job killing,” “tax scam,” “cash grab” and “fad legislation” to fight it. They want people to feel entitled to convenience and suspicious of government action. The strategy makes perfect sense because they are in the business of protecting private profits, not taxpayer money nor the environment we all share.

It’s pretty easy and inexpensive to buy washable, reusable bags and keep them handy for shopping. It requires only a minor lifestyle shift, and it makes a difference. I hope more people will choose them in the interval before plastic bags become restricted on a widespread basis.

How could Lady Bird Johnson be anything but dismayed by the plastic bag litter haunting our cities and blighting our roadways? How much longer will we continue to tolerate it? Nobody says, “Where plastic bags blow, so does hope.”


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party. The “My Point of View” columns alternate weekly between local Democrats and Republicans.