If you are of a certain age, or older (hello, fellow boomers), you may recall the movie “The Graduate.” In that classic film, a young college graduate, played by Dustin Hoffman, gets advice from an older businessman about how to plan for a successful future. The older gent, Mr. McGuire, offers a single word of guidance — “plastics.” The future of business, he claimed, was in plastics. In this 1967 cinematic coming-of-age story, Hoffman’s character did not follow that advice, but I’ll leave the rest of the movie up to you to watch, on your phone or whatever it is you kids today use (I think I can actually hear them yelling “ok boomer” on the wind somehow).
At that time, in my youth, plastics were quite the wonder product. Made from petrochemicals and moldable and malleable into unlimited shapes and uses, plastics were, well, pretty cool. And few thoughts were given to issues of disposal and how long plastics lasted in landfills, or far more worrisome today, waterways and oceans.
All those memories came back this week as I read an article on some ruminations among state Democratic representatives about banning single-use plastic bags.
Several different bills have been introduced in the Legislature, ranging from limiting Styrofoam containers for take-out food to prohibiting restaurants from providing plastic straws and coffee stirrers and more.
No doubt the various single-use plastic ban proposals come from a good place and are well motivated. Concurrently, I can understand major bag users, such as grocery store chains, wanting to have some consistency, at least at the state level if not nationally. Is it fair, one might ask, to require, say, Safeway, to have dozens of different rules for stores located across a wide range of community regulations?
This is where my libertarian streak kicks in a bit.
Some of the proposals would prohibit the “free” distribution of single-use plastic bags but would allow customers to buy such bags at 10 cents per bag. The idea is that such a fee, not particularly onerous but still an additional cost, would encourage folks to bring reusable bags to the market to save the bag fee and also therein reduce the amount of plastic that finds its way into our environment. My own very smart wife keeps a set of cloth grocery bags in her car, and I have a couple in mine, though I admit I usually forget they are there until I’m loading the groceries into the trunk. A 10-cent bag fee might well help me remember.
This idea is similar to what I saw take place back in Michigan, where I grew up. Back in 1976, Michigan passed a state law that put a 10-cent deposit fee on beer and soda bottles (though, in defense of midwestern youth, we called it “pop”) and very quickly the litter problems were significantly reduced and overall improvements were substantial. Silly people who were too busy to take their used bottles back to the store for a refund of the deposit found their discarded bottles quickly snatched up by other folks, who returned them for the money. Fans of the old TV show "Seinfeld" may recall an entire episode focused on the Michigan bottle bill (no spoilers!).
Perhaps Colorado should consider such a program, done at the state level to give our hardworking business folks a consistent and level playing field. A bottle bill similar to Michigan’s might do wonders, especially if placed on water bottles as well — a critical source of problems plastics. And why not toss in the bag fee at the same time? People who either are too busy, too wealthy, or just don’t care could continue to use plastics as they wish, they just have to pay a bit for the privilege, while industrious folks will bring cloth bags, perhaps full of bottles to return for the deposit.
Some reasonable accommodation should be made for the communities that have already implemented their own plastic bag fee policies, but these do not feel like insurmountable problems. And while it is true that the U.S. is not the worst contributor to ocean plastics — river pollution is the biggest source, and Asia is home to eight of the top 10 worst river systems — it is in our national interest to try to do what we can. And with China’s recent decision to halt the importation of “foreign garbage,” we find it much more difficult to recycle plastics. Thus, reducing their use is the logical place to focus our efforts.
And so, ironically, the advice given to that long-ago graduate may prove important for 2020 and beyond. Plastics will be an important part of the future, but not in the same way as it was in the '60s.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.