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Local View: Changing behaviors promises to impede plastics pollution

When the bathtub is overflowing, common sense tells us to first turn off the tap. Similarly, as the St. Louis River, Lake Superior, and our oceans overflow with plastic, and our fish, drinking water, and Duluth beer are confirmed as contaminated with plastic, the logical step is to stop the estimated 20 million pounds of plastic that now enter the Great Lakes annually.

Jamie HarvieAs taxpayers, we have funded education and clean-up efforts for decades in schools, through the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, and elsewhere, but the problem is multiplying. Despite our good intentions, we remain stuck in old habits. It is clear we need a new approach.

The Bag it Duluth Campaign has offered a new approach through model legislation that, if enacted, would place a nominal fee on single-use carryout store bags, phase out plastic-foam to-go containers, and make straws available only on request.

This is what other cities and counties from South Carolina to Anchorage, Alaska, and across the globe have done. Listening to their citizens, they passed local legislation to help turn off the source of these most-common disposable plastics, and this is successfully changing behaviors for the better.

In many of these cities, the efforts are part of climate action plans. Growing appreciation for the linkages between climate change, plastic waste, and the economy is notable, as it requires holistic thinking.

Research clearly indicates that race, even more than income, is the No. 1 indicator of the placement of toxic facilities in this country. Moreover, communities of color and low-income communities are often the hardest hit by climate change. In short, an economy dependent on disposable products is equally dependent on disposable people and a disposable planet. We must act and think differently and work to address issues as a whole if we want a livable future for all and future generations.

This is what Bag it Duluth is asking of our city leaders. In 2017, Bag it Duluth supporters filled a City Council committee of the whole meeting to overflowing, requesting action. Hearing none, our many organizational partners pressed on, holding reusable-bag drives for social-service organizations and hosting educational events across the city.

Our proposal has been shown to successfully reduce plastic pollution and mitigate climate change. It also could save Duluth businesses thousands of dollars a year. It is a strategy successfully adopted by many hundreds of cities and countries across the globe. For a community that prides itself as an outdoor city, Duluth taking such action feels like a no-brainer.

Now our voice is even stronger, with many hundreds of Duluthians, equally distributed in zip codes across the city, publicly adding their names to our Bag it Duluth Pledge, which commits them to personal action and asks for City Council action. Many more organizations and businesses such as Va Bene, the NAACP, AICHO, the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club, and Great Lakes Aquarium have come on board in support. The College of St. Scholastica Student Senate passed a resolution demanding its school's administration place a pass-through charge on single-use carryout bags provided on campus and only offer compostable straws. Savers voluntarily adopted a 10-cent pass-through charge on single-use carryout bags, to widespread customer support.

This June, a global scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc.ch) was released, stating that "'rapid and far-reaching' measures are required to combat climate change."

We are in a climate emergency, and every action counts. In 2017, International Coastal Cleanup identified straws, plastic grocery bags, and plastic-foam to-go containers as top-10 coastal pollutants. These are the very items Bag it Duluth has been asking our elected leaders to address.

While we acknowledge that local action will not solve the global plastic problem or climate change by itself, changing behaviors will be a step in the right direction with the potential to catalyze future action. Importantly, it is something we can actually address when so many feel powerless in the face of dire planetary predictions

Last week, the mayors of Duluth and Superior participated in a kickoff for the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup events occurring this month. Like a scene from the movie "Groundhog Day," we only need to look at last year's report to get a sense of what we will find this fall.

We have to clean up our mess — but we need to turn off the tap. All we need is a mayor and City Council willing to introduce our model legislation to help get us unstuck. Please call or email them and ask them to act.

Jamie Harvie is the coordinator for Bag it Duluth (bagitduluth.org), a citywide effort to stem the use of single-use products.

Get involved

What: Sustainability/Plastic Use Awareness event

When: Saturday: a screening of the documentary film, "Bag It," is at 3:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion about the film and ways Northlanders can be more sustainable; a reusable-bag collection for CHUM is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and a Bag It pledge drive is all day

Where: Great Lakes Aquarium, 353 Harbor Dr., Duluth

Online: More details are at bagitduluth.org

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