Sacking the Bag 

How a plastic bag tax might help the Memphis environment.

A new Memphis City Council rule would place a seven-cent tax on each plastic bag consumers take from retailers that are 2,000 square feet or larger.

Council chairman Berlin Boyd said the motive behind the move is not to make a profit, but to help sustain the environment. Specifically, Boyd wants to protect the city's waterways, which he said are overly polluted by plastic bags.

"It's all about protecting our waterways," Boyd said. "Because once those bags get out in the environment and they blow around, they're going in drainage ditches, under your car, in a tree, and in the water. It's about protecting the aquifer."

click to enlarge Plastic bags like these could cost you 7 cents apiece. - MAYA SMITH
  • Maya Smith
  • Plastic bags like these could cost you 7 cents apiece.

Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club agrees that the use of plastic bags should be limited, as they are contaminating waterways and causing a slew of other issues in the environment.

"Plastic bags are a primary source of microplastic pollution in our waterways, the main cause of the rejection of curbside recycling, and clog our storm water drains, contributing to local flooding problems," Banbury said. "Short of an outright ban, a tax on bags will cause people to reconsider their use and choose reusable bags."

However, Banbury said plastic bags are not an immediate threat to the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the source of the city's drinking water.

"Plastic bags could lead to eventual contamination of the aquifer with microplastics, but it would take a long time — decades, or hundreds of years, depending on whether the microplastics find their way to a breach in the clay layer that protects the aquifer," Banbury said.

Keith Cole, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy, said it's for that reason that his group supports the proposal, as "plastic bags are a nuisance." Rain and gravity often move plastic bags from the ground to a waterway, he said.

"Anyone who spends time outside in an urban area would probably agree that plastic bags are an environmental concern," Cole said. "Unfortunately, we find them in many many places, whether it's on the ground or wherever. Anything that ends up on the ground can end up in a river. If it ends up in the Wolf River, it ends up in the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually out into the ocean."

When the plastic breaks down, the particles can be consumed by fish that could ultimately be consumed by humans, Cole said. Research is showing that chemicals from plastic are starting to end up in humans' bloodstreams.

Plastic bags also often interfere with the recycling process, causing machinery at the recycling facility to malfunction, Joyce Williams, Memphis' Solid Waste recycling administrator said.

"Probably the most confusing thing about plastic bags is that they often have a recycling symbol printed somewhere on the bag," Williams said. "Within the recycling facility, plastic bags and plastic films get caught within the machinery and cause work stoppage, broken belts, and damaged machinery."

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