I took some time off work last week, mostly to take a break and spend some time with my daughter.

My mind, however, didn’t rest. 

My daughter and I went shopping in New York state, home of the new plastic bag ban. I have reusable bags in my car, but seldom remember to take them into the store with me. But that wasn’t what got me thinking.

Are plastic bags or straws really such a nightmare that a ban is necessary? I did some research — novel concept in today’s age, I realize — to see what is the most littered item.

Each place I checked — Keep America Beautiful, Marine Corps Community Services, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation — all said the same thing: Tobacco waste, like cigarette butts, is the most littered item in the world.

“But plastic makes up nearly 70% of the litter in the ocean,” people say. 

According to the NOAA, cigarette butts have a hand in that as well.

“Most cigarette filters are made out of cellulose acetate, a plastic-like material that’s easy to manufacture, but not easy to degrade. The fibers in cigarette filters behave just like plastics in our oceans, the UV rays from our sun may break the fibers down into smaller pieces, but they don’t disappear. One solid filter ends up being thousands of tiny microplastics.”

The NOAA explained how cigarettes end up causing problems.

“Cigarette butts are a pervasive, long-lasting, and a toxic form of marine debris. They primarily reach our waterways through improper disposal on beaches, rivers, and anywhere on land, transported to our coasts by runoff and stormwater. Once butts reach the beach, they may impact marine organisms and habitats,” according to the NOAA.

In 2018, the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Report said 2,412,151 cigarette butts were collected worldwide in 2017. 

Most smokers I know don’t consider a cigarette butt as litter. Not only are the butts litter, but they contain toxins that leach into the soil or the water, harming wildlife in a myriad of ways.

Are plastic bag bans effective in cutting down pollution? In some ways, sure, but in others, not so much. People still need those bags, for trash can liners, or picking up animal waste. Without a plastic bag, people are buying garbage bags — which use more plastic to make.

Some stores are offering paper bags instead, which aren’t so great for the environment, either, studies show, as they must be made of paper, which comes from cutting down trees. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing with the increase in paper bag use, according to NPR. And studies show cloth bags must be used thousands of times more than a plastic bag to make it better for the environment.

In my opinion, so many of these well-intentioned changes are really just for show, as in, “Look at us, we care!” 

I think the larger issue here is a lack of responsibility, a lack of pride of place. So many times over the years, at so many different public meetings, I have heard elected officials tell residents, “We can’t legislate pride.”

Each year in the spring, a community organization will hold a cleanup day, where residents are asked to pitch in to pick up litter. Many turn out to participate, which is a fantastic reflection on the community pride in Bradford.

Do you know what would be even better? If people would take responsibility for their own garbage and these cleanup events weren’t necessary.

(Marcie Schellhammer is the Era’s assistant managing editor. She can be reached at marcie@bradfordera.com)

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