We all have baggage.

For some, it is plastic, but for others only paper or cloth will do. Those in the latter group must have appreciated Wednesday’s designation. In case you missed it, I’ll recycle the news. Nov. 14 was Reusable Bag Day in Massachusetts. I kid you not. This is official and important.

No one could ever accuse State Sen. Brian Joyce (D- Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth) of not being able to fight his way out of a paper bag. This conscientious senator, along with Gov. Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts legislature, Mass Audubon and the Massachusetts Food Association, issued the state’s first formal bag-free proclamation, which included a legislative resolution by both the house and senate. It was a plastic bag holiday; or rather, a day to take a holiday from using plastic bags.

My enthusiasm for this initiative (and for the use of cloth bags) probably makes me a bag lady. That’s okay; my little brother has called me worse.

There are many good reasons to sack plastic bags. They clutter landfills, float in our ponds, drift in the seas, flap from trees and bushes (especially thorny rosa rugosa), hide in the sand on our beaches and even end up in the stomachs of sea turtles and other marine and domestic animals. They are litter-ally (and littorally) everywhere. Plastic bags also last forever, if not longer.

Here are the depressing facts: Americans use over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of those, only one per cent is recycled. Reusing is not the same thing as recycling: while many bags are reused, they eventually end up being thrown away. And away never really is away.

Plastic bags take over 1,000 years to break down. When they do, the smaller pieces still contain toxic materials that continue to be poisonous to animals and our land and water. And plastic bags are an eyesore.

The Ocean Conservancy, a marine protection and advocacy group, conducts an annual beach cleanup day. They estimated that on one day, 350,000 plastic bags were collected from sites across the U.S. and internationally. They found that plastic bags are the fifth most common type of debris found on our beaches.

And although it is hard to believe, we did (in the very recent past) live without plastic bags. The first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in 1957 (and no doubt they are still in a landfill, if not somewhere worse). Department stores began to use them in the late 1970s, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that plastic grocery bags came to our supermarkets. We can live without them, and Senator Joyce has taken a step to remind us how.

The next step is legislation that Senator Joyce has also introduced, aimed at discouraging the use of plastic bags by imposing a tax on each and every bag. The first year, a two-cent tax per bag would be charged. The cost per bag increases annually until at year seven, it will cost 15 cents for each bag that you take. Go, Brian, go!

To avoid the extra charge, you can simply ask for a paper bag, refuse a bag, or (my favorite) bring your own. And even better, the purchase of your own reusable bags is 100 per cent tax deductible, so load up! You may have already noticed that responsible Island grocery markets offer reusable bags for sale near the checkout counters, so don’t be shy about picking some up.

The bag-tax idea is not far-fetched, or even very original. Many countries, including Ireland, Italy, Bangladesh, South Africa, Taiwan, and parts of India have these laws on their books. These laws have been very successful in fighting the plastic bag scourge. Ireland led the way, and the country has seen great results. Plastic bag consumption has decreased by 90 per cent and 18,000,000 liters of oil have been saved by the decline in production of plastic bags.

I hope that Reusable Bag Day becomes an everyday thing — no need for a one-day holiday. I dream of a plastic-bag-free Island. Carrying cloth bags could become a status symbol — is your bag from Cronig’s, Stop & Shop, Midnight Farm, or some other local merchant or organization? I advise you to choose one and carry your sack proudly. You definitely don’t want to be the last one left holding the (plastic) bag.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.