Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 23
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
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“Paper or Plastic?” Preferably Neither, Says Princeton Environmental Commission

Ellen Gilbert

In the movie The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock is counseled that the future lies in “just one word: plastic.” Plastic, as in plastic bags, will have little or no future in this area if the Princeton Environmental Commission has its way.

At its last meeting of the 2007-2008 year, visitors Penny Thomas and Beth Ann Mitchell presented the commission with arguments against the use of plastic bags for carrying merchandise from groceries and other stores, followed by a discussion about what might be done to diminish or discourage the use of plastic bags in Princeton. As for paper bags, they’re preferable to plastic, but their manufacture has an undesirable source: the cutting down of trees.

Ms. Thomas and Ms. Mitchell read excerpts from a fact sheet they distributed to commission members, describing the deleterious effects of the widespread use of plastic bags, which began in the 1980s. They noted that an estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, while only one to five percent of them recycled; the rest get thrown away. In China, they said, where plastic bags are called “white pollution,” the government recently shut down the largest plastic bag maker, which was manufacturing some 250,000 tons of plastic bags a year. The threat posed to birds and mammals, which often mistake plastic for food, is considerable: the fact sheet cites a report estimating that “about 100,000 whales, seals, and turtles are killed by plastic bags worldwide each year.”

The answer, according to Ms. Thomas and Ms. Mitchell, is “BYOB,” the second “b” in this case standing for “bag.” Legislative efforts in other municipalities, it was noted, have been discouraged by demands from the plastic industry to provide environmental impact reports. Ms. Mitchell suggested seeking a grant to support the creation, design, and distribution of two free reusable bags to each household in Princeton, with more available for purchase. Cooperation from local merchants would also be key to the plan’s success, and there was unanimous agreement with Commission member Matthew Wasserman’s suggestion that the matter be turned over to the Sustainable Princeton subcommittee working with area businesses and non-profits.

There was also consensus among the commission members and guests that a culture change is in order. People are used to the idea that “you’ve got to wear seatbelts, and you’ve got to wear helmets,” said Ms. Mitchell. “They’ll just have to get used to the idea that you’ve got to help the environment.”

In other discussions at the Wednesday evening meeting, it was noted that John Witherspoon Middle School has slackened off in its recycling efforts.

The next meeting of the Princeton Environmental Commission will be Wednesday, September 24.

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