“Just because plastic is disposable doesn’t mean it goes away. After all, where is away? There is no away.”

— Jeb Berrier in the documentary “Bag It”

It’s easy these days to feel as if environmental protections are eroding, with federal measures that once seemed inviolable under siege. But at the local scale, there’s some cause for hope.

Four years ago this month, in the newly minted Source section, I wrote my first Sea Change column on the ecological costs of plastic bags and take-out polystyrene containers. At that time in Maine, only Freeport had taken action to limit these ubiquitous items that endanger wildlife, litter the landscape and break down into hazardous microplastics – threatening aquatic life. (And those pollution problems don’t even account for the fossil fuels and carbon emissions involved in plastic production.)

Now 13 Maine town and cities have placed fees or bans on single-use carryout plastic bags, and 10 have banned takeout food containers made from expanded polystyrene (foam). Still more municipalities are developing similar ordinances.

The communities that limit disposable plastics (see sidebar) still represent less than a fifth of Maine’s population, but their actions signal an important shift in public consciousness. Ned Lightner, a Belfast resident who helped organize his community’s recent bans, sees people starting to think more “about the damage of plastics.” What motivated him and his fellow organizers was a Penobscot Bay Stewards course, run by the Maine Coastal Program (Full disclosure: I worked for MCP more than two decades ago.) In that class, participants learned that typical samples of bay water contain upwards of 10 pieces of microplastics per liter. “That’s when it got kind of scary,” Lightner says, and participants began discussing actions they could take.

Bags and polystyrene containers are admittedly a small part of a vast marine debris challenge; a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects that – with worldwide use of plastic expected to double in the next two decades – global oceans by 2050 could have more plastic by weight than fish. What bans and fees can do is encourage people to adopt routines less reliant on throw-away, blow-away plastics.

In Belfast, Lightner reports, the bans that took effect in January appear to “heighten awareness about keeping our community clean.” They have inspired residents to plan a cleanup this May, spanning 59 roadside miles, that will give hundreds of volunteers a firsthand sense of how much plastic packaging escapes recycling and disposal systems.

“There’s a ton of education that goes into this,” says Falmouth Sustainability Coordinator Kimberly Darling, because many people assume that plastic bags and foam containers are readily recyclable. In short, neither is. Bags gum up sorting machinery at recycling facilities, and both materials are too light to economically transport to reprocessing facilities. No recycling facility in Maine even accepts expanded polystyrene.

Maine communities with bag or foam container ordinances have seen local residents and businesses adjust almost seamlessly to the change. There have been no compliance or enforcement issues, Darling says of Falmouth, and “it’s very rare to see folks not bringing their own bags.”

Each local ban does far more than shift the habits of community residents. It helps move Maine toward adopting more comprehensive legislation – like a bill put forward in the 2017 legislative session. Due to lobbying by grocery stores, retailers and – sadly – the Department of Environmental Protection, that bill got diluted from an outright ban to a measure simply discouraging use of plastic bags.

Yet as I noted four years ago, it makes no sense to tackle this problem town-by-town, more than 400 times over. Even many businesses eventually decide that a statewide ban is preferable to contending with a host of non-uniform ordinances. “I think that’s going to happen,” says Sarah Lakeman, sustainability director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “That’s exactly what happened in California,” she added, a state that now has a statewide ban.

A commitment to reducing the prevalence of plastics must start with manufacturers, but legislating change there will be hard in the current political climate. As more consumers clamor for alternatives, though, some corporations are moving away from single-use plastics. In Europe, a growing number of supermarkets now offer a wide array of plastic-free items.

Over the past few years, Lakeman says she has observed “a real shift in the public dialogue” in Maine, with broader agreement that “plastic is a bad idea.” Discussions now tend to focus on what the best alternatives are and how to “instill a culture of reusability.”

We have witnessed – with attitudes toward smoking – how quickly cultural shifts can happen. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a similar tipping point, finally seeing that we’re literally swimming in plastics and need to stem the tide.

MARINA SCHAUFFLER provides research, writing, and editing services to nonprofit and social enterprise organizations through Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).

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